Friday, June 08, 2012

Socotra's Arab Spring

Tabsir calls attention to a fascinating MERIP piece about recent political activism in Socotra, a Yemeni archipelago over 200 miles south of the Arabian Peninsula:
"At the beginning of 2012, as Egyptians and Syrians marked the second year of their revolts, protesters also took to the streets of Hadiboh, the tumbledown capital of Yemen’s Socotra archipelago (pop. approx. 50,000). Like demonstrators elsewhere, the Socotrans were calling for both local administrative change and national political reform. While the Socotran protests, occurring since March 2011, were small, they were no less significant than the more spectacular rallies in the epicenters of Arab revolution. Indeed, the spread of revolution to Socotra, the largest and most populated of the archipelago’s four islands, shows the extent to which the events of 2011 have resonated even at the very margins of the Arab world...
"When, in early 2011, Socotrans expressed their opposition to the proposed Socotra Authority, they did so largely out of the conviction that the archipelago should become more integrated into the mainland’s administrative structure, not less. What they wanted instead, these pastoralists with little patience for expert-driven conservation or the mainland’s endemic corruption, was for Socotra to be elevated from its current division into two local districts under the governorate of Hadramawt to a single governorate in its own right. In that event, they reasoned, all of the monies allocated to Socotra would reach its two elected local councils directly instead of being channeled through Hadramawt and embezzled, or simply divided among that province’s 28 other districts, along the way. Notably, this streamlining was one of the rationales behind the proposed Authority, in addition to its oversight of conservation and development activities on the islands. Yet for Socotrans eager for government jobs, services and regulations, the Authority seemed like one more project standing between Socotrans and the central state...
"Of the 79 poems recited in 2011, more than one third were explicitly political. Of the 24 poems presented by the contestants themselves, ten zeroed in on the uprisings, the Yemeni revolution or the political fate of Socotra. And the critiques were not timid. Arab leaders were condemned for the deaths of protesters and portrayed, by one poet, as being worse than 'Benjamin' (Netanyahu), who kills only in small numbers. President Salih and his supporters were likened to a countrywide infestation of fleas requiring extermination; to travelers on a ship at port, which, when it finally departs, will sink under the weight of its cargo (i.e., everything that was taken from Yemen); and to a lumbering camel that has irritated otherwise harmless bees, causing them to swarm and attack. Many poets wrestled over the future of Socotra, with some calling for 'return' to south Yemen (through secession with the former South) and others calling for total independence (or even restoration of the sultanate). Several presented the practical problems of secession; others argued for or against the former Socialist regime and Yemen’s 1990 unification. (Most of these poems seem to have been composed in the early 1990s, and were recited for their renewed relevancy, and because it is now considered safe to assert such views in public.) Many poets decried the factionalism brewing in Socotra. One warned evocatively that, in such a climate, not even the swollen riverbeds yield pasture, though the streets were not yet stained with the 'colors' (blood) of Tunisia or Libya. Another argued against the proposed Socotra Authority. Even the few verses about the sultanate were juxtaposed to the 'fires' or 'dark rain clouds' of the present."
The grievances of the protestors seem related to economics, including a focus on development common to rural areas of the Middle East.  A common theme is a more direct administrative relationship with the central government that would remove a layer or two of graft and allow more development funds to benefit the islands.  Some Socotrans are even calling for an autonomous region similar to Iraqi Kurdistan.



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