Waiting and watching on the Arab Spring

April 2, 2012

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KAMPALA, UGANDA – The times, they are a changin.’ Maybe. Sort of. Well, we live in hope, anyway.

I think of it while on Skype with Walid al Saqaf. We’re talking to catch up, about Yemen and censorship and technology and other things.

Walid is a Yemeni journalist who has been noted in this space in the past. We were colleagues in Sana’a while Walid was publisher and editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times. I worked at his side.

We both left Yemen in 2005, me to Africa, Walid, on a Daniel Pearl Fellowship, to the Wall Street Journal. Now he’s director of global journalism at Orebro University in Sweden, where he’s also working on a PhD in International Censorship.

Never one to let his life experiences go unused, his studies are the direct result of the Yemen government’s censorship of Yemen Portal. That was Walid’s Internet site that brought Yemen news to one online locale. Now he’s studying who censors what and when.

China, Iran, and, no surprise, Syria are the worst offenders, he says. Then, after a gap, some of the Arab countries.

I have Walid on Skype from Long Beach, Calif., where he’s taking part in TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) 2012. Our chat in itself is noteworthy, considering Internet phone services were often censored in the Yemen I lived in, and developing nations such as Uganda where I live part of the year now still have speeds too slow to use Skype fully.

“The real question is, can he let go of his old connections and clean up the mess?” This is Walid’s take on Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s new president in power after a one-candidate election deal saved Yemen from civil war. The country has avoided Syria’s fate, for now.

The problem is Ali Abdullah Saleh, the 67-year-old autocrat who ran Yemen for over three decades. He’s still in the country and still heads Yemen’s largest party, the Yemeni People’s Congress.

Walid calls the ousted Saleh sly and slick and ambitious enough to pull a Putin — that is, follow the example of the returned Russian president and try to retake Yemen’s mantle in 2014 elections. “That’s why people won’t leave the squares and arenas, until there’s no chance of his return.”

As long as Saleh remains, Mansour Hadi is left with little room to manoeuvre. “The strings are still attached. He can’t move freely,” says Walid. And with a secessionist movement in Yemen’s south, al-Qaeda growing in some villages, and a split military, the new president has his work cut out for him.

I’m not surprised that Walid is a TED participant. The organization’s motto is Ideas Worth Spreading. To date, its conference talks have had 500 million online views. TED attracts some of the world’s brightest lights.

One is Phillipe Petit, the tightrope walker made famous for his walk between New York’s Twin Towers. At the Long Beach conference, he has shared about childhood campfires, how gathering around common stories would bring people together. He has noted how he once opened a festival in Jerusalem by walking across a tightrope between Israeli and Palestinian sides. Midway, he released a dove. Strangely, rather than flying, the bird then landed on Petit’s head, then onto his balancing rod, and then onto the wire.

During each misstep, Petit pretended that he had it all planned. The crowd went wild in appreciation as Petit finished his walk. And everyone forgot their differences.

It’s an apt image of what might be happening in Yemen. Freedom has been released, and there’s great potential for it. But it remains to be seen what happens if it doesn’t immediately fly, if Yemen’s new leadership can improvise and keep walking in a straight line.

By now — with the new Egypt in a haze and some 100 Syrians slaughtered every day — we know that the so-called Arab Spring needs significant outside help.

Walid laments, “The world had abandoned the Arabs for so long.” Western leaders gave acquiescence to Arab autocrats to protect their own interests, he said. “But that’s never the solution in the long term. Sooner or later, there will always be an explosion.”

And so we’re left here, looking up, watching for what might happen next.

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April 2, 2012 • Posted in ,
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