Living conditions, fragile agreement trigger protests in Aden

SMA News – Aden the Capital

Yemeni watchers believe the deterioration of living conditions with a collapse of public services in liberated areas have led to the current wave of discontent, with popular anger turning into a powerful political factor.

Hundreds of Yemenis took to the streets of the southern port city of Aden for a second day Wednesday to protest poor living conditions and rising prices in the war-torn country.

They marched through the de facto capital, where the internationally recognised government is based, chanting: “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, the South.”

The march came a day after angry protesters — including retired military and security officers — stormed the presidential palace in Aden before being pushed back and dispersing peacefully.

Palace guards reportedly shot into the air but protesters continued to march in. Then, the crowd remained in the building for over an hour before dispersing.

A government official said that Yemeni and Saudi forces escorted members of the cabinet, including Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, to safety in the military intelligence building on the palace grounds.

Some of the protesters told reporters that they were angry over a lack of services and a delay in the payment of salaries.

Tuesday’s incident drew mixed reactions from the political class in the war-torn country.

While sources close to the Southern Transitional Council (STC) described the demonstrations as popular protests over poor living conditions and the collapse of basic services, activists and media figures close to the government accused the STC of provoking the unrest to score political points and raise tensions.

Yemen’s government was formed in December under a Riyadh-sponsored power sharing agreement between ministers loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and supporters of the Southern Transitional Council.

Both are technically fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who control the capital Sanaa in the north.

But the STC has often voiced its discontent over the government’s handling of the situation in Aden, in particular and the southern region, in general.

Aden residents say the new government has not done anything to remedy price inflation or repeated power cuts.

Renewed tensions in the port city indicate the frailty of the alignment created by the Riyadh Agreement amid persistent mistrust between the two sides and a series of political manoeuvres that increased following an international push for a nationwide ceasefire in the country.

In recent weeks, the international community, led by Washington, has called for new rounds of consultations to bring the conflict in Yemen to a permanent end. This initiative prompted the STC to demand its inclusion in the ceasefire talks as a political party representing the south.

The demonstrations in Aden came one day after similar protests in the Hadramawt governorate.

 Shooting at protesters 

In an attempt to disperse the gathering in the city of Seiyun, forces of the First Military Region, who are usually accused by the STC of loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood, reportedly shot at protesters.

Observers of Yemeni affairs believe the deterioration in living conditions with a collapse of public services in liberated areas has led to the current wave of discontent, with popular anger turning into a powerful political factor.

Speaking on the situation in Yemen’s liberated provinces, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said Tuesday “the situation in Aden and the surrounding governorates remains difficult.”

In a briefing to the UN Security Council, the envoy added, “improving basic services, including access to electricity in particular, making sure that salaries get paid to government employees will ensure the security and stabilisation of the economy that needs more resources than is currently available to the Government. These resources are of course in short supply.”

Head of the National Assembly of the STC Ahmed Saeed bin Brik, hinted at  moves to ratchet up tension that the STC might take during the coming period.

Brik said protesters had stormed the presidential palace in Aden in response to the violence that took place in Seiyun a day earlier.

“We will turn the tables and there will be no room for manoeuvring,” he said, threatening to announce a “statement number one” from the Liberation Square in Khor Maksar.

The term “statement number one” refers to the first announcement made by the leaders of rebellions when they have seized power.

Since the signing of the Riyadh Agreement, Qatari-aligned elements from within the government have been inciting Yemenis against the STC and questioning why the STC has been legitimised by being made a partner in the government.

At the same time, leaders of the STC have been facing mounting criticism over their reluctance to disapprove of the government’s performance, the deterioration of services and the continued rise in the exchange rate of foreign currencies against the Yemeni riyal, along with widespread corruption.

Informed Yemeni political sources told The Arab Weekly that the Qatari-aligned southern movement led by Hassan Baum has been recently vilifying protesters and trying to portray their movement as being hostile to the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

In what appears to be a reaction to the vilification campaign, Deputy Chairman of the Southern Transitional Council Hani bin Brik commented on the protests that took place in a number of cities in southern Yemen, saying, “Whoever takes advantage of the people’s demonstrations and their just demands to describe Saudi Arabia and the UAE as aggressors, occupiers and looters, will achieve what the Houthis want.

“This was not what happened on battle fronts when Allah reinforced our ranks with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. I say it very clearly: Anyone who accuses Saudis and Emiratis of aggression is hoping to harm the South and the southern forces,” he added.

A member of the Presidency of the Southern Transitional Council Salem Thabet al-Awlaki attributed the unrest in the cities of Aden and Sayun in northern Hadramout to people’s suffering, the deterioration of living conditions and the collective punishment policies pursued by corrupt elements in the liberated cities of the South.

Awlaki said in a statement to The Arab Weekly, “We previously warned of a popular uprising over the government’s inability to fulfil its obligations stipulated in the Riyadh Agreement, especially with regard to the disbursement of salaries and the improvement of services.”

He stressed that the situation has become worse and more complicated than it was before the government returned to Aden.

Regarding STC’s position on the protests, Awlaki said, “The ethical and humane duty commits the Southern Transitional Council to align with the people and support their demands while remaining keen on preventing any attempts to infiltrate and hijack the popular protests.”

Awlaki condemned “the repression and excessive use of force against young protesters by the forces of the First Military Region in Seiyun, describing those acts as a flagrant violation of the right of expression.”

On the other hand, STC political rivals accused the Council of being behind the recent unrest in the city of Aden.

Activists and media figures from the Islah Party (the conventional rival of the STC), and other players affiliated with the government, claimed the STC provoked the protests to reshuffle political cards at a time when Yemen’s governorates of Marib, Taiz and Hajjah are witnessing escalating attacks by the Iran-aligned Houthi militias.

Yemeni journalist and political researcher Ramah al-Jabri said, “The protesters’ moves are legitimate according to Yemeni law, including their right to demonstrate. However, storming the gates of the Maasheeq Palace shows the government is dealing with a security vacuum, which means that there is need to complete the implementation of the military part of the Riyadh Agreement. ”

Jabri, who is close to the Yemeni government, described the Riyadh Agreement as “a bridge for all to cross towards a strong government and a true partnership between all parties, including the STC.

The STC, however, is “required to implement the agreement in a realistic way so that the government can provide tangible service to the citizen, including controlling security and facing challenges,” Jabri added.

He also considered that the STC was behind the unrest in Aden, saying that the protests “appear to be a response to a statement issued by the council’s spokesman on March 9, in which the STC called on the government to tackle the piling crises and the collapse of services.

“The weakening of the government and the attempt to overthrow the Riyadh Agreement serve only the Houthi militias, who praised the storming of Al-Masheeq Palace, and described the protesters as revolutionaries,” Jabri said.

He called on all political parties to support the government at this current critical juncture, noting that a two-month period is not sufficient to assess the government’s performance.

The “challenges are great at a time when the government is leading a national battle against the Houthi militias on various fronts,” he said.

Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war between the government — backed by a Saudi-led military coalition — and the Houthi militias since 2014, pushing the country to the brink of famine.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and millions displaced in the conflict, which has crippled the economy and healthcare system.

The UN calls Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

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