The commentary below comes from an AID member currently living in Yemen:

I woke up this morning to the sound of sirens. Living just 5-minutes from the airport I assumed that something had happened there. I didn’t have time to satisfy my curiosity because I was already running late for work. So I hurried to the main street where I normally pick up one of the local mini-buses.  When I hit the street I was shocked.

The southern city of Aden, where I currently live, is the most liberal in all of Yemen. The country was divided into North and South Yemen until the civil war of 1994. Before then the South was a socialist country where communal equality ruled and religion was almost completely exempted. The North, being controlled by Saudi Arabia, was fundamentally religious. When South Yemen lost the war the country opened up and the North began to impose its religious interpretations and practices on the people of the south.

Before this time southern Yemen was an international trading area and was once a British colony, so even during Socialist rule people still favored Western dress and a Westernized education system. Before 1994 the people of southern Yemen practiced Islam, but in a very nonchalant and uninformed way. After the unification they were taught the ‘correct’ way to practice Islam.

Universal health care was lifted, Islamic law was enforced and societal structures shifted. The religious leaders from the North traveled south to preach their beliefs to the men in the mosques. After only a year the society changed. The equality of the sexes was gone: women were told that in order to be good Muslims they should cover themselves- including their faces- and that their voices should not be heard.  Men dominated classrooms and women were kept at home with the children thus, keeping them out of politics and away from an education. This resulted in an unhealthy, uneducated and an extremely gender segregated society.

Health care, education and gender equality were not the only things that were changing. Because of Yemen’s opposition to the US’s involvement in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait all Yemenis were sent back home from the Gulf countries (including Saudi Arabia who, until this time, had supported Yemen). Yemen was already an impoverished country. Its economy was shaky do to three eternal wars in 15 years. Many international projects were launched in order to help maintain the nation, but when 3million people returned from the Gulf unemployed no quantity of aide could help the country stabilize.

Unified Yemen grows more conservative everyday. This growth contrasts the country’s employment, poverty and illiteracy rates, which deepen every year. There are many rural areas that do not have running water or access to food staples, let alone education opportunities or any type of personal advancement. Women’s rights are still completely left out of governmental concern. So, yesterday when I walked out of the house and into the street riots I was shocked, but not entirely surprised.

The sirens that I had heard in the morning had nothing to do with the airport and all to do with social unrest and energetic despondency. I cautiously walked past the tanks and shouting demonstrators and made my way to the American center, all the while a bit anxious about what I would find. When I reached the center the staff informed me that classes were cancelled and that I should go home and stay put.

Before I left I spoke with Director Nafisa. She explained to me how the government had, by suggestion of the IMF, raised the price of petrol 95% and that all transportation costs were doubled. One can only imagine how ill-received this would be, especially with a population that is already poor, uneducated and hungry.

A total of 25 people have been killed so far. Police killed five and the other 20 were stabbed or shot by Yemenis. All transportation (except the airports) has ceased in a national protest against the inflation. So far the majority of the violence has taken place in the north. The reaction in the south has been limited to a series of protests and demonstrations, but many government buildings have been set on fire, some stores have had their windows smashed and we have heard the sound of gunshots. Foreigners have been told that they are not targets, but that we should still stay in our homes.

The weekend here is Thursday and Friday. I don’t do anything on the weekends because I am a female and I really can’t do anything by myself (which vexes me like you wouldn’t believe) so staying inside isn’t much of a problem (relatively). This will be my last weekend in the south for a while. 

I leave for northern Yemen on Wednesday and then for the Gulf on Thursday. I’ll spend one business day in Qatar, and then one week in Kuwait before returning to northern Yemen for more work. Hopefully things will cool off by Wednesday. The president has called for national calm, but the religious leaders are pushing for fortified struggle. I was planning on taking the bus up north, but I will have to spend the extra $50 and take an airplane.

Most of the Yemenis that I have talked to predict that the riots will stop soon and that they are nothing more than poor people expressing their contempt. We’ll see. I don’t think it’s wise to underestimate the power of a discontented majority.