Don’t expect Arab uprising soon

March 22, 2003

SANA’A, YEMEN – “We’re going to err on the side of caution and stay in the house for a few days,” is what I told a friend during a phone chat yesterday morning.

Our self-imposed house arrest would mean Jean and I would miss a friend’s birthday party and a weekly gathering of friends.

Not much of a sacrifice, considering a few hours later four Yemeni protesters, including an 11-year-old boy, lay dead on the streets of this capital city. They were killed by Yemeni police guarding the American embassy.

Yemeni killing Yemeni. That’s part of the fallout of the strike on Iraq. It’s the part you won’t always see on the 24/7 war shots filling TV screens across the planet.

The deaths were perfectly preventable. But as is often the case, a little stupidity got mixed with high emotion and, not surprisingly, guns.

To review, about 30,000 protesters, angry about the light show blazing over Baghdad, decided to march to the American embassy, where they wanted to do what protesters do: chant and pump their fists, burn tires and garbage cans, call for death to America and Israel, all standard practices in this region, war or peacetime.

Compared to what we’ve seen globally, it wasn’t a huge crowd. And I doubt it was terribly unmanageable. Remember, in Yemen guns are often slung over one’s shoulder for honour more than anything. I’ve seen AK-47s casually brought into restaurants. If a few protesters had guns, that wasn’t the biggest problem.

The concern over these protesters, I’m afraid, is that they decided to get together at all, let alone in front of the U.S. embassy. The terrible threat they supposedly gave is that, like protesters in Canada or any other free country, they marched on the steam of their own thinking. Imagine that.

In Yemen, you see, thinking for yourself — at least in terms of protesting where and when you want — is illegal. So if you hear that hundreds of thousands of Yemeni do demonstrate against war in Iraq, know that these are government-driven shams. Kids are let out of school. Folks get posters. Everyone has a good time.

Isn’t it funny that, unlike huge demonstrations in New York and London, many Arabs have simply been mute over Iraq?

So when an autonomous crowd did get out for some fresh air yesterday, one of the few times this has happened in Yemen, folks don’t know how to handle the freedom. Next thing you know, somebody’s boy is in a pool of blood. How sad. Sad because people are dead. Sad also because it shows this culture’s terrible immaturity.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab world was exploited by foreign powers, namely the French and British. Now after half a century of fake independence, it’s again under the yoke of colonialism, that of its own leaders.

Today’s Arabs are scattered, divided and weak. We know it. And so do they. In fact, they’re embarrassed by it. As a Yemen Times letter writer put it, “If we remain like this, within a few years the whole Middle East will be called ‘The United Emirates of America.'”

So despite the stereotype of the angry Arab terrorist, I honestly wouldn’t worry about Arab masses truly rising against the West very soon. Like kids who refuse adulthood, it’s my observation that folks here simply don’t know how to take responsibility. Yesterday’s slayings show it’s easier to kill each other before organizing against any outside threat.

This frailty is also why both Arab governments and extremists encourage their masses to demonize Israel. Starving people need a scapegoat. And it’s why real issues like Palestine’s fate, or now this grand Yankee experiment in colonizing Iraq, is being decided by outsiders.

Yeah, like me, you may not like this war. But at least we have the freedom to say so without getting shot dead.

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March 22, 2003 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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