In Yemen, the Life March Revives the Debate on Immunity for Saleh

Hundreds of Yemenis are marching 250 kilometers from Taiz to Sana’a to protest the immunity clause contained in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative.  Demonstrators began their journey on Tuesday December 20 and are hoping to arrive in Yemen’s capital in time to hold protests in front of the Parliament on Saturday.

On that day, Parliament is scheduled to vote on a law granting immunity to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and many senior officials, in accordance with the terms of the GCC implementing mechanism signed by Saleh in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 23, 2011.

Dubbed the “Life March,” the demonstration is reviving the pro-democracy movement after the disappointment that followed the signing of the GCC implementing mechanism.
“The youth walking all the way from Taiz to Sana’a is a historic moment that is beyond description. It shows resilience and power of the people,” said one of the protesters.

Members of the pro-democracy movement have a number of grievances with the GCC deal, including the movement’s exclusion from the negotiation’s process, the lack of real comprehensive change in the plan, especially in the military arena, and the granting of immunity to Saleh, his aides, and many others.

Due to a lack of transparency, no public document listing those who will be granted immunity has been released.  However, off the record, members of the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), an opposition coalition, have admitted that some members of the opposition are included in the immunity deal.

Hope Restored
The Life March has revived hope that peaceful resistance is still possible even after ten long months of protest.  In the many cities and villages protestors have passed through, they have been welcomed with cheers, music, food, and shelter.  Along the protest route, many have also joined the march. A number of Facebook groups have been created to document the march, and a live stream has been setup for people to follow the protestors’ journey.
By fostering new forms of resistance, Taiz city has become a symbol for innovation and inspiration in Yemen.  This trend has continued with the Life March, making people feel proud and hopeful once more.

Implications & Challenges
The ruling party has accused the JMP of inciting protestors to march from Taiz to Sana’a. In particular, the party has accused Hamid al-Ahmar, a businessman and prominent figure in the Islah party, of funding the life march to disrupt the GCC agreement. Some political analysts believe that Hamid al-Ahmar and other players, who have not found a place in the GCC deal, may have incentives to halt the plan. The ruling party has also called for GCC mediation andthreatened to derail the GCC deal if the Life March is not stopped.

Protestors at the Life March have denied the ruling party’s allegations and have stated that neither the JMP nor any other group has been involved in organizing the march.
While the march has certainly invigorated the revolutionary spirit, not all pro-democracy activists support the initiative.  Some feel that it is a waste of time, and that effort should be placed on building pressure groups to oversee the newly formed national government.

The Pro-Democracy Movement and the GCC Deal
While the majority of pro-democracy activists feel that the GCC initiative and implementing mechanism are imperfect, not everyone agrees on the current and future actions that the movement should take.  Currently, the movement is divided between those who disregard the GCC deal entirely and do not feel the need to address any of its components, and those who believe that the GCC initiative and its implementing mechanism are imperfect, but insist that the movement should participate in the political process and form new political parties and pressure groups.

There is also another group, within the movement, that supports the GCC initiative as the only viable solution. Munir Al-Mawery, an outspoken activist abroad and member of the national council, wrote in an op-ed piece in Al-Masdar online “If Parliament refused to pass the immunity law, this will be a precious gift to the deposed president and his family who will seize the opportunity to thwart the initiative, cancel the presidential elections and allow the return of the ousted president to his palace.”

While the GCC initiative and implementing mechanism provide one possible exit to the deadlock, it did not involve popular participation and, therefore, did not address any of the street’s demands.  With real grievances ignored, and no representatives to speak on their behalf, many Yemenis feel alienated and disappointed.

The Life March demonstrates that the revolution will continue and evolve into different forms. Political players have yet to learn that the Yemeni people will no longer tolerate a system of exclusion.  If a real solution is to be reached, protestors and major stakeholders need to be part of the process.  Collective participation is the only way to give the people a sense of ownership and endow the political process with real legitimacy.

*First published on

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