On February 11 after the Friday noon prayers Yemeni students and activists organized a demonstration in the capital city of Sanaa in solidarity with Egyptian demonstrators frustrated with Mubarak’s refusal to resign. At about 1 PM they met in front of the small roundabout by the new campus of Sanaa University and marched through town chanting slogans and carrying pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser the Egyptian hero of Arab nationalism. Less than 200 people took part and only two were women. Slogans chanted included:
“Awaken! Awaken oh youth!”
“Long live Egypt!”
“Down Hosni Mubarak!”
“Egypt mother of the free! Mother of the revolutionaries”
And they sang an excerpt from a poem by Abu al Qasim al Shabi, a Tunisian poet of the early 20th century: “If the people will to live, providence is destined to favorably respond; and night is destined to fold, and the chains are certain to be broken.” This song had been heard in Tunisia, Egypt and then throughout the Arab world as popular mass revolutions spread.
The small group of demonstrators walked by throngs of Yemenis ignoring them or looking bemused while they continued their purchase of Qat, the mild stimulating narcotic nearly all Yemenis chew. One onlooker asked another who the guy in the picture was. “Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said the other man. One traffic policeman spat out that the demonstrators were sons of whores and nobodies. “What does Egypt have to do with our mothers?” asked a boy contemptuously. “Fuck them they’re gay!” said another man. Some people watching shouted “Long live Hosni Mubarak!” and laughed.
A Yemeni Red Crescent car with about six people in it followed the protestors from start to finish. I asked why they were there. “For them,” one of them told me, gesturing at the demonstrators. A lone policeman on a motorcycle and two sanitation trucks full of young men with plenty of sticks and rocks also followed.
When the demonstrators reached the cemetery for Egyptian soldiers who died fighting against Yemeni royalists many more security forces arrived in several cars and one bus. Now there were at least 30 uniformed security men along with others in civilian clothes. Some had clubs. The two sanitation trucks full of at least 20 men also pulled up. They were obviously there to attack the demonstrators if it became necessary. After a couple of minutes in front of the cemetery it ended and people walked home. One of the female demonstrators, Tawakul Karman, smiled and shouted in front of the security forces “Down down with Ali Salih!” She was referring to President Ali Abdallah Salih whose rule started in 1978.
Salih, who rules the poorest Arab country, seems poised to be the next dictator to fall in the popular revolutions spreading from Tunisia on to Egypt. Though each country is different, many of the complaints demonstrators voice are the same, and thanks to al Jazeera and social media, activists are able to learn effective tactics. Yemen today is an uncomfortable amalgam of North Yemen and South Yemen, united in 1990. Yemen receives attention for the small al Qaeda presence but this is the least of its problems. In the north Salih has been brutally fighting Zeydi Shiites seeking autonomy by massively bombing their villages, displacing hundreds of thousands and then attacking displaced civilians. In the south he is at war against secessionists. The peaceful southern movement which demonstrated for a more just access to power and resources was violently crushed, leading some of its members to turn to armed resistance. Salih delegates control over much of the country to tribal sheikhs whose loyalty is tenuous. Yemen’s powerful Saudi neighbors are deeply involved in its internal affairs, their money purchasing officials and spreading Wahabi Islam. Salih has instrumentalized al Qaeda against domestic foes while using the threat of al Qaeda to extort money from Americans who see the Muslim world only through the prism of the war on terror. Is with Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, the United States has had a close relationship with the Yemeni dictatorship thanks to the war on terror. U.S. president Obama increased military assistance for Yemen from $67 million in 2009 to $150 million in 2010. Documents released by Wikileaks exposed the cozy relationship between senior Americans and the Yemeni dictatorship. In one document we learned about America’s beloved General David Petraeus conniving to lie to the Yemeni people about who was killing Yemeni civilians in the name of the war on terror. Instead of fighting the al Qaeda bogeyman his American backed security forces fight Zeydis, southerners, journalists and students.
The Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP, formed in 2002, served as a loyal opposition composed of parties with divergent goals and constituencies. The regime has been able to exploit this and the JMP has had little success. On February 2nd, in response to Egypt’s revolution, Salih promised not to run again in 2013 (a promise he also made and broke before the 2006 elections too) and that his son would not succeed him. In Sanaa it was not the establishment parties who started the revolution, but youth, just as in the rest of the Arab world. In defiance of those who predicted that Yemen was “not Tunisia” or “not Egypt,” that it was too poor, or uneducated, or tribal, the protests have been spreading there, finally threatening Salih in his capital city. In response to the surprising and powerful showing of the non aligned youth, the Zeydi rebels in the north promised their cooperation while southern demonstrators stopped calling for secession and only for “suqut al nidham,” or the fall of the regime, the same words shouted throughout the Arab world.
The small al Qaeda franchise in Yemen is known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The American industry of terrorism experts has dubbed AQAP the greatest terrorist threat facing the United States and has wrung its hands over AQAP’s threat to the Yemeni regime. This is despite the fact that AQAP’s international success amount to a failed underwear bomb and a package bomb that failed to detonate. In fact the regime does little to pursue AQAP because it does not perceive it as a threat. Rather than being too weak to fight AQAP, the regime has focused its various security forces attention on fighting domestic political opposition, killing or wounding hundreds of demonstrators. Likewise the demonstrators have not been concerned about al Qaeda except as a pretext for the regime’s security forces to target innocent people or receive international support. Al Qaeda is a marginal phenomenon in Yemen (as in the rest of the Middle East). While it is the primary concern of the United States government and hence the United States media, it is far from the real problems facing Yemen which the demonstrators express in a near blackout of international media attention.
Later that night on February 11, Mubarak resigned. “You should do something,” one activist said to another, who called up several other activists and suggested a candle light vigil in front of the university to show support for the Egyptian victory. By 8:30 in the evening hundreds of Yemeni students, academics, activists and citizens gathered in front of the new university. Their numbers grew to the thousands. Chants included:
“The Egyptian people brought down Mubarak!”
“Long live the Egyptian people!”
“Revolution until victory!”
“One thousand greetings to al Jazeera!” The Yemeni popular opposition wanted the powerful satellite network to focus on them as it had on their brethren in Tunisia and Egypt and they knew that without al Jazeera none of the revolutions could have succeeded.
Soon the chants’ theme shifted from Egypt to Yemen.
“Yesterday Tunisia, today Egypt, tomorrow Yemen will open the prison!”
“Down with the regime!”
“The people want the regime to collapse!”
“Revolution oh Yemen from Sanaa to Aden!”
“The Yemeni people is fed up with Ali Abdallah Salih”
People marched for an hour from the new university to the Egyptian embassy and their numbers grew to the thousands. They marched past neighborhoods and were cheered by onlookers who stood in shops, or opened their doors peering out, looked down from balconies, leaned against walls with arms folded thoughtfully. The demonstrators were eventually met by soldiers guarding the Egyptian embassy and they turned around and gathered in Sanaa’s Liberation Square. Most of the square had already been blocked off my Yemeni security forces and tribesmen they were collaborating with. By about 10:30 pm several trucks full of heavily armed soldiers began to arrive. At least ten army trucks carrying dozens of men in civilian clothing who were likely members of the Yemeni security forces arrived as did many security force pick up trucks and jeeps. Hundreds and hundreds of men in civilian attire carrying sticks, knives as well as automatic weapons arrived carrying pictures of President Salih. They attacked some demonstrators with knives and sticks and at this the majority of the anti-regime demonstrators dispersed. Hundreds of uniformed members of the Yemeni security forces were present facilitating the arrival of those chanting support for Salih. The security forces also closed off the roads in the area of Tahrir square, allowing only pro regime demonstrators in who came running with signs, sticks, knives and automatic weapons. The remaining few hundred anti regime demonstrators lasted for a while with a few dozen of them sitting on the street. There was some pushing back and forth as the columns of pro and anti regime demonstrators met, and some water bottles thrown back and forth. But dozens of police in riot gear separated the two sides. Anti regime demonstrators burned pictures of Salih. They shouted at the pro regime demonstrators “army wearing civilian clothes!” Pro regime demonstrators shouted “with our spirits with our blood we sacrifice for you oh Ali!”Anti regime demonstrators responded by chanting “Oh oh leave oh Ali” and “Oh God oh God down with Ali Abdallah!” Demonstrators on both sides danced and sang. Then hundreds more pro regime demonstrators charged the opposition youth, forcing them all to flee. This happened under the eyes of the chief of security for the area, hundreds of various security forces and the general secretary for Sanaa, Amin Juman. In the end thousands of pro regime demonstrators had occupied the square singing, banging on drums and dancing. At least ten anti regime demonstrators had been arrested.
President Salih’s people were very wise to pre-empt the Yemeni youth opposition and seize Sanaa’s Tahrir square, preventing the opposition activists from occupying the square the way their Egyptian counterparts occupied their own Tahrir square. For the Yemeni opposition it would have been both a symbolic and strategic victory. Symbolic because it would obviously associate them with the Egyptian people’s victory, strategic because its basically the only such large public square in the city. The government denied the demonstrators any location to call their own. At night around the outskirts of the square dozens of Yemeni security force members are sprawled on steps or on the street, their Kalashnikovs on their laps, tapping their large clubs on their palms or swinging them. Thousands of men in tribal attire fill the square, pacing in boredom or standing indolently, their cheeks swollen like tennis balls from the qat paste in their mouths. In addition to their Gambia decorative daggers, many of them have clubs. Its widely believed their tribal leaders have ordered them to the square. Security forces gather some of them during the day to oppose anti-government demonstrators and intimidate them. At night, corn is roasting for them, and they are given other meals. There are several long tents in the square. Above one is a banner that says “International Support Destruct Terrorism.” Inside are a few dozen men sprawled on the floor chewing Qat. In another tent dozens of men watch a circle of men dancing in a circle to a drumbeat and waving their daggers. People eye me suspiciously. It’s a tense mob and I feel like I’m in some mix of tribalism, fascism and drug induced stupor. A few hundred men stand around in a crowd and listen to various tribal poets shouting speeches into a loudspeaker. Whoever fights the eagle of Yemen will go down, they are told, and President Salih made Yemen a leader among nations. “Long live our leader the struggler!” he shouted. Another poet denied the widespread belief that they were in the square for money. “If it wasn’t for our president you would be crushed like Iraq,” a poet said, asking where were Saddam’s sons Qusay and Uday. “See how blood is flowing in your country!” he called to Iraqis. “ We are yours Abu Ahmad,” he addressed the president, “with our guns and our soldiers.”
“This is the real problem in our demonstrations,” Tawakul Karman told me on Saturday the 12th of February, “that they send these balataga. Since the Tunisian revolution we have organized 11 demos and they send these guys with their Gambia knives. The revolution is starting and gets bigger and bigger, we just need to decide.” Tahrir square had never had tents before, she told me. “These thugs and national security members can protest whenever they want and build tents without permission and we are not allowed to protest. These tents are there since February 3. They occupy the place so we cant take it. But we will sleep there one day. Karman runs an NGO called Women Journalists Without Chains. She is also part of the younger more rebellious generation of the Islah party, ostensibly an opposition party but one close to the regime. Twenty one demonstrators had been arrested the night before, she told me. “Sometimes we don’t know about the prisoners until some time after.” She could hardly contain her excitement about the freedom she anticipated to arrive following the Egyptian victory. We call Houthis and the movement in the south and the GNP to get along with us in one national struggle to make this ruler fall down and the response is strong. But practically the revolution was started by students and young people, specifically Sanaa university students, and its proceeding by very well studied steps under the slogan of peaceful performance and Jasmine spirit. Unlike Mubarak the international community hates Ali Salih.”
Tawakul’s arrest on January 22nd helped mobilize the activist community. At 1 AM that day she was driving home with her husband when several cars cut them off. They asked her to get out but she demanded an arrest warrant. Five men from the National Security forces took her by force inside their car. She shouted that she was being kidnapped and neighbors came out but the police drove off with her.
“They released me because of the protests all around the country. They expected to silence my voice by putting me in prison but the popular protests surprised them as did the international protests. Because of the huge anger and the pressure on them internationally and locally they released me.
Tawakul was charged with attacking the regime and calling for an uprising through protests and demonstrations as well as calling for prohibited demonstrations and protests. She was released with her home as a guarantee. “At any moment I can be arrested again I don’t know what the next stages are,” she said. This was Tawakul’s second arrest. “Its unusual for them to treat women like this but women annoyed them very much,” she said, “before Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution we were organizing weekly protests for human rights and freedom of speech, for prisoners, every week since May 2007. After the Jasmine revolution we realized that all of our previous struggles, fighting corruption and for human rights wont lead to any result. Three years of struggle and the human rights situation keeps falling down, we have released tens of reports about human rights and freedom of the press and corruption in Yemen. Now we believe there is no solution for human rights except the departure of this regime.”
Tawakul’s brother Tariq is close to the regime and recites poetry in official events. The day after Tawakul was released she attended another demonstration. Tariq received a phone call from President Salih. “You have to control your sister and put her in house arrest,” the president said, adding an Arabic expression, “otherwise whoever splits the stick of obedience, kill him.” Tariq was pressured to deny that this ever happened but he sent Tawakul a text message on her phone apologizing for his recantation. “This threat and the arrest before it and the arrest before that one keeps empowering the human rights movement and enabled me and strengthened my will,” she said, “I used to receive hundreds of threats by SMS, email and Facebook, but this threat came from the president of the country. Before and after that threat I saw signs telling me that they might carry out that threat. In one of the protests a woman was behind me and she was holding a knife but the guys noticed her and captured her and handed her to the police. And now at most demonstrations and protests these thugs go directly towards me with the daggers. You can see on youtube a video they put up called “the escape of the agent Tawakul Karman.” When I walk all the men are around me protecting me, before I used to go alone. The balataga come and cheer our slogans and suddenly they raise their daggers in front of us and attack us but for sure we will make the regime. As it fell down in Egypt it will fall down here in Yemen.
Tawakul complained about American financial support and training for the security forces who attack the protestors while wearing civilian clothes. Some of them were members of the Central Security’s counter terrorism unit. “The National Security Agency was founded after September 11 to fight terrorism in Yemen but it left its job to struggle against journalists, human rights activists and began overseeing terrorism instead of struggling against it.”
Tawakul’s arrest helped galvanize the opposition. Khalid al Ansi, a lawyer and activist explained to me that the post Egypt demonstrations were the largest independent ones yet, not organized by the official opposition parties. “They went out by themselves not following political parties,” he told me, “young people started to call for them on their own, not through political parties or famous people. There was a demonstration in Yemen to support Tunisia. On Facebook I called on youth and my friends not to raise the Tunisian flag but to raise the Yemeni flag if you are serious about demanding this regime to fall.”
What he did on Facebook angered the regime, he told me. “They considered it a way of organizing the protests,” he said. On January 22, hundreds of people independent civil society activists held a demonstration. “They brought many security forces, riot police, three trucks full of soldiers and also there were police, national security, political security, criminal investigation, water cannons.” He estimated that there were more than 100 members of the security forces, most of them wearing civilian clothes. “With our protests and demonstrations we start to recognize them even in civilian clothes.”
The security forces brought balataga to provoke riots and attack the demonstrators. “They had sticks and pictures of the president. They came with their knives. They were cursing us. The police was between us and them and they allowed them in and provided them with space to bring them into our protest. That day they closed university gate. We tried not to be provoked. They threw stones, soda cans. The police arrested one of the protestors. I was asked to give a speech that day. My speech was directed to police and army. I told them that we go out for you because you are suffering more than us. Your presence here is against your will. And I said Ali Abdallah Salih has to fall and he will fall. I asked the protestors “do you agree to be subjects, animals?” and they said “no,” and I said “how can you accept that Ali Abdallah Salih bequeaths us to his son like animals?” Then I talked about the suffering in Yemen. The prices in Yemen are higher than Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia is an oil rich country and we are a poor country.” Al Ansi also complained about corruption in the universities. The free openings for qualified students had been reduced to make more space available for unqualified students who paid in U.S. dollars. “I spoke about how they changed our republic into a monarchy,” he said, “we have the Salih Mosque, Salih Institution, Salih foundation, Salih Projects for Unemployment, if we remain silent he will change it from republic of Yemen to republic of Salih. Instead of starting a charity foundation he just needs to stop corruption. There was a microphone, everybody was silent, even the security forces. I wanted to remind the forces and police about their problem. Even political parties dont talk to these people. I discovered we get wide respect from these people.”
“That night I dreamed I was arrested. In the morning I found many calls, early calls, one of them from Tawakul Karman, I read the news about her arrest. I start to think what we have to do. I spoke to her husband, her organization called me. I said we have to go demonstrate. I felt that they arrested Tawakul because she was a head of these demonstrations and if they arrest her there will be no more demonstrations, and if there is no demonstration they will keep her in jail. I called the youth to go demonstrate, we were about 200 and then the older people followed us. We made our way to the new university. We found many police cars trying to surround the place. They arrested one of the youth who led chants in the demonstration so I started to lead the calls. They sang the poem by the Tunisian al Shabi and chanted “with our spirits, with our blood, we sacrifice for you oh Yemen!”
Bystanders joined them. Two policemen arrested al Ansi. “I don’t use violence,” he said, “I want to show to these people ‘we know you are only a tool.’” In the police car one policeman shouted at him demanding to know why they were demonstrating. “For you,” al Ansi said, “my life is better than your life.” He talked to them about their low salaries. “Why don’t you go out in the thousands?” one of the policemen asked, “you are too few.” 21 other demonstrators were arrested. One of them was beaten. A journalist was also arrested. “After I was arrested people got angry and continued demonstrating,” al Ansi said. Because he was a prominent lawyer the prosecutor general wanted al Ansi released. “I said I will not go out unless you release all the youth with me and after you release Tawakul Karman. Many people came to visit us. I told them to go protest, not to focus on trying to release me, continue demonstrating, look after Tawakul Karman, she is a woman, its hard for a woman to be in jail. If there is a demonstration we will be released. The government thought if they arrest us there wont be demonstrations.”
Ahmad Seif Hashid is an independent member of parliament who has served for eight years. He helped lead the demonstration demanding the release of Tawakul and the other activists. Hundreds took part and were met by the police and the Central Security forces. Hashid could not be arrested because of his status and some of his colleagues clung to him to avoid arrest as well but Hashid and others were beaten with fists and clubs. Major Raed Kamal, head of the May 22nd police station led the attack against the demonstrators, telling his men that they were paid agents of the west. “The Yemeni regime is a stained copy of the Egyptian regime in its policy and maneuvers,” he said, “whats happening in Egypt had a big effect.”
The demonstrations soon started to attract common people on the street outside the network of activists. Muhamad Ali al Muhamadi is a 38 year mechanic. He did not belong to a political party and he did not own a television. He had six children and worked illegally Saudi garages. He saw the demonstration while walking to work. “I joined because I am against the regime. I faced difficulties from sheikhs and others and these problems destroyed my family. They even shot at my children while I was working in Saudi Arabia. I went to the justice institutions and despite all the confessions and proof they increased injustice, in addition to what we suffer economically. From this I concluded that the Yemeni government uses the law to serve the strong and doesn’t serve the poor class and labor class and as one of the Yemeni people that is persecuted its my right to express my feelings and defend our rights and our freedom and our honor. The Egyptians suffered from the same thing we suffer here and they have the right to choose their destiny. I encourage any persecuted person to demand their rights democratically because human was born free and human is human not animal he cant be guided by a stick. And I want from the regime to treat us like humans and make the law serve everybody equally without discrimination. We don’t feel like humans, we feel like animals. We don’t have health or security. I met people demonstrating. I found them suffering from the same thing I suffer. So its my right to express my opinion and express what I suffer by this current regime.”
On Saturday February 12 Muhamad joined the demonstrators at the new university at 10 AM. From only 100 at first the crowd of mostly students grew to over 1,000 demonstrators calling for the fall of the regime. Before the march began police arrested a man making signs. A group of balataga attempted to provoke a clash with the demonstrators so they withdrew to a different location. When the demonstrators got to Qasr street they were attacked by balataga with daggers, clubs and axes as well as security forces with electrical stun guns. Muhamad was caught and stunned several times while his hand was stabbed and he was beaten on his head and leg with a club. He was slapped and punched and insulted. He maintained that the man with the electrical stun gun was a member of the security forces wearing civilian clothes. Undeterred, Muhamad vowed to attend more demonstrations.
The next day, February 13, saw larger demonstrations. The demonstrators met at Sanaa University’s new campus at 10 AM and marched for about three hours, their numbers exceeding 1,000.
Their chants included:
“No engineering and no education until the president falls,” shouted a mechanic.
“Demonstration, demonstration until the regime falls!”
“Oh Ali go go, the chair beneath you is rusting!”
As uniformed security members gathered before the Saudi embassy the demonstrators shouted “we and the police and the army eat the same bread!”
“Oh God! Oh God! Death to Ali Abdallah!”
“Long live Yemen! Down with Ali!”
“There is no solution! There is no solution! Either you go down or you leave!”
“Mubarak went down oh Ali! After Mubarak oh Ali!”
“No studying and no teaching until the president falls!”
“Our revolution is popular like the Egyptian revolution!”
“Our revolution is peaceful, one hundred percent peaceful!”
“All the people hate him!”
“Go Ali without your departure there will be no solution!”
“Revolution oh people from north to south!”
Importantly, tens of thousands of people saw the demonstrators march. Observers included young students in green or brown uniforms coming home from school, buses full of passengers, taxis and people in their cars. Many cheered and waved as they sat in traffic. One taxi driver with a picture of President Salih on his windshield also shouted “down with Ali Salih!”
When they past the home of the president’s son Ahmad they shouted “Oh Ahmad tell your father Yemen is not your father’s property!”
“Oh Hamada (nickname for Salih’s son Ahmad) tell your father 70th road doesn’t belong to your father!”
“Oh Hamada tell your father, all the people hate you!”
“Oh free ones! Oh free ones! No to Ahmad and no to Amar!” they shouted, referring to Salih’s sons.
When they walked past the Saudi embassy “Oh King Abdallah, prepare a space for Ali Abdallah!”
They arrived at 70th street, leading to the main parade grounds as well as the president’s mosque and the president’s residence. Security forces hastily formed a row and brought lined the road with barbed wire. CNN had their footage confiscated by plain clothed security agents. Uncertain of where to go next, the demonstrators debated if they should go to Tahrir square or back to the university. They ended up at the Rowaishan roundabout. Some students sat on the street, causing traffic jams while other students tried to direct traffic. At 1 pm several trucks full of central security men in green uniforms arrived as did pick up trucks with Central Security men in riot gear. They all carried clubs. Some had teargas shotguns, electric stun guns or automatic rifles. Emergency response police in blue uniforms and many security men in civilian clothes also arrived. Several security men in civilian clothes had been taking pictures of various demonstrators from the beginning of the day’s events. The security men charged, swinging their batons at demonstrators who fled. At least 20 demonstrators were beaten with batons on their heads and backs. Others were beaten with fists and kicked. At least two demonstrators were attacked with electrical tasers. Mizar Baggash Ghanem a student leader at San’a University was shocked from behind. They also attacked leading activist Khaled al Anisi with electrical stunners and arrested him, though he was later released. Female activist and journalist Samia al Aghbari was attacked by Central Security men who threw her on the ground, causing her head to hit the curb. She lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital. At least one central security man loaded his rifle prominently to intimidate men trying to protect Tawakul Karman. Several youth were arrested including one who was first severely beaten at the intersection. Also beaten with batons on his back and wrist was Faez Noman a youth activist and member of the Communist Party youth committee. Another youth was beaten on his head in front of the nearby Happy Land supermarket whereupon he started to bleed. He too was arrested. A civilian security official from the area coordinated the Yemeni security response.
Later that day I met with Mizar and Faez. Mizar was a 31 year old activist and student at Sanaa university’s trade faculty. He was a member of the executive office of student unions for Sanaa university and Amran university. Most of the demonstrators were unemployed young people and students, he told me. “Tunisia was the start,” he said, “we went out on the 16th of January. Our first activity was too support the Tunisian revolution and the fall of the regime of Yemen. We are the peaceful youth and student revolution. Hundreds of people organize it. 48 youths have been arrested. They tried to arrest me more than once. The officers came to get me and the guys surrounded me and prevented it. Today the director of the 22nd of May police station came to arrest me specifically. This officer is the one who arrested 32 guys in one day. He focuses on the youth and activists.”
Since Tahrir square was denied to them Mizar and his colleagues and renamed the square in front of their university Taghir, or change, square. To avoid being attacked by balataga they left the square that morning. In Rowaishan roundabout Mizar gripped Ahmad Seif Hashid to avoid being dragged away. Security men used the electrical stunner on him and he was beaten but Hashid held him tightly so the police could not take Mizar away.
Faez Nuaman was a 30 years old graduate of Sanaa university who studied civil engineering. “We are inspired by Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutions that these dictatorial regimes shall leave because they oppress their people and their sons inside their country,” he said. Faez had never been arrested but he had beaten in previous demonstrations by security forces and balataga. The balataga phenomenon started in 2008, he told me. On that day’s demonstration Faez saw emergency response police beating at least one man with their fists and legs and Faez was also among the victims of the security forces.
The next morning, on February 14, Faez was arrested while gathering for a demonstration in front of the university and taken to the May 22nd police station. Ahmad Seif Hashid and other students led the demonstration. Several members of central security and the emergency response police had electrical stun guns. One security officer filmed the demonstrators on his iPhone. Many security men had clubs. There were several army officers including one from special forces and numerous security men in civilian attire along with young balataga who looked like high school students. “He starves you all year and pays you 1,000 riyals today so you support him,” one university student said to the balataga. Police stood between the two sides as they shouted back and forth at each other.
“We wont chew qat and we wont sleep until the regime falls!”
“Oh Hamdi return return, your people is begging at the borders!” they shouted, referring to the president who preceded Salih.
“Our demands are clear, leave oh Salih!”
“No dialogue, no dialogue, resign or escape!” shouted the demonstrators, in response to the balataga shouting in support of dialogue with the president.
The standoff continued until suddenly about five hundred men from the lawyers syndicate came marching into the roundabout. The balataga found themselves surrounded on both sides and the crowds mixed chaotically. Khalid al Ansi and other lawyers led the demonstrators towards the ministry of justice. On the way, by the Kuwaiti hospital, security forces stopped them, but the lawyers pushed through the club swinging security men. In front of the National Institute of Administrative Science the demonstrators were met by high school school students holding sticks and raising pictures of the president. The young students tried to attack the lawyers but were stopped by the police. Eventually the demonstrators turned back and walked to the university.
Near the university roundabout, Abdallah Ghorab, a BBC Arabic correspondent, was attacked with sticks and beaten harshly by balataga pro government thugs under the gaze of security men and he had to cut short his transmission. Security men shouted to the thugs that he was a spy and they should attack him. The thugs called him a mason, a spy, a dog, and said he was selling the country for dollars. “I showed them my ID” he told me, “I said ‘I’m from BBC, I’m a professional, I show all sides.’ They told the balataga that I am an agent “beat the spy.” I saw more than 150 people with sticks, if they caught me I would be dead. I ran for 200 meters to a small alley and sat to hide for a minute.”10 balataga found him. They headbutted him, leaving a large bloody scar from top to bottom. His shirt and hands were covered with blood. They beat him on his back with sticks. The thugs took him to a white Landrover belonging to Hafidh Ma’ayad. Ma’ayad is President of the Yemeni economic association, one of the biggest goverment associations. He is also one of the financial leaders of the country and a senior leader in the ruling party. Ma’yad was sitting in the front passenger seat and called Abdallah a spy. “Shame on you!” Ghorab shouted at them, “this issue will grow bigger.” Ma’yad threatened Ghorab with tribal vengeance. Ghorab asked him how he could threaten him when there was blood on Ghorab’s face. Central security officers came and advised Ma’yad to let Abdallah go. Some of the thugs who attacked him left in Ma’yad’s car. The day before balataga had also tried to attack Abdalla during the demonstration but he escaped. “I am not ok, and the country is not ok,” says Abdallah angrily, “this is the result of speaking the truth.” Later that day Ma’yad called a tribal sheikh related to Ghorab so that their two tribes could reconcile. “This is the tribal system that stinks that we are suffering from it,” he told me.
In the morning near the Beit Bus roundabout where day laborers gather and wait for long hours to find work about 100 day laborers began to demonstrate and call for the president to resign because there was no work. Policemen and general security men arrested the man who was organizing them as well as about seven laborers. At least fifteen riot police came and attacked the protestors, forcibly dispersing them. Six or seven were arrested.Later on pro-government thugs attacked anti government student demonstrators with bottles and stones near the new campus. The students called for restraint and retreated to the university. Campus police officers opened the gates for them. Inside seven or eight students were beaten by six or seven university police and there was a group standing watching. A senior university security officer was in charge of the attack.
I met Qassem Qaed Qassem al Jaashani at the demonstration that day. He was a 30 years old father of five from the Jaash area of Ib province, 250 kilometers away from the capital. Hundreds of people like him, known as Jaashin, had been expelled from their homes by Sheikh Muhamad Ahmad Mansur, a member of Yemen’s legislative council and the so called “poet of President Salih.” I met Qassem and his family in the apartment block they and others from Jaash had been given by local charities. They had no electricity or water. Several men as well their wives and a dozen small children sat and talked to me. They were all coughing incessantly and the smell in their apartment made it hard to breathe. The children had not showered in a long time. On January 2, 2010 Mansur had expelled them from their land. In much of Yemen Salih has delegated power to tribal sheikhs who establish a reign of terror, running their own prisons and confiscating land at will. In return Salih is guaranteed to receive all the votes from their communities.
Similar problems exist in Hajja, Hudeida, Mahwit and Taez. In Jaash Mansur demanded yearly tithes from his subjects, often more than what they could make in one year. His draconian feudal abuses sounded medieval. Mansur also confiscated remittances sent from abroad and demanded money whenever daughters were to be married. He also changed land deeds to confiscate land. If the villagers couldn’t afford to pay Mansur would confiscate their livestock or furniture or let his followers ransack their homes. In late 2006 over 400 people fled to Sanaa while others fled elsewhere. In 2008 about 270 persons fled and in 2010 up to 350 people fled to Sanaa while others fled elsewhere. In January 2010 Mansur finally destroyed their homes and even their trees. Five villages were attacked with heavy weapons. A village called Halyan was totally destroyed.
“He was taking people to prison,” Qassem told me, “arresting them, putting them in chains, including children. He doesn’t distinguish between adults and children. He imprisoned one boy because they came to take our fruits and we defended out fruits. His militia came to take the fruit. Three cars with armed men came to arrest these people because they are taking their own fruit. His militia is about 400 people. He receives salaries and weapons from the president personally. Yemen is not ruled by laws its ruled by sheikhs and he uses them.” Qassem explained that Salih worried if he stopped supporting the tribal leaders then votes in their area would go to opposition parties.
Hayat As’ad Qassim, his wife, tried to protect the children with her body during the attack. “The attackers went in and searched the houses and stole everything,” she said, “when a woman didn’t go out they went in and dragged her out. The attackers even slaughtered the animals. I took my children and I escaped with other families. We escaped at night walking to the road. The soldiers of the sheikh said you have to make your husbands surrender because they are terrorists. We said we don’t have weapons how can we be terrorists. The children were frightened.”
When they organized a demonstration in Sanaa they were attacked by security forces and more than twenty men were arrested, including Qassem. Captain Rashad al Masri of the Nasr police station tortured prisoners, putting cigarettes out on them, splashing them very cold water. Qassem was thrown on the ground and stomped on by political security men. “We don’t know who to go to get our rights back,” Qassem said, “we demand our rights as citizens. Just as the government has rights we have rights.”
February 15 was Khaled al Qahtani’s third demonstration. He was a 33 years old assistant editor of al Mustaqila newspaper. “I started to care about the cases and issues in our country, unemployment, poverty, the suffering of youth not finding work. What I considered these cases is slavery.” Khaled marched with four colleagues and Ahmad Seif Hashid, the parliament member. The balataga attacked them with daggers. They called Hashid an American spy and beat him with clubs. Some student demonstrated responded violently. The balataga threw stones and some students threw them back. The demonstration dispersed chaotically and Khaled was separated and beaten with clubs and thick wires wrapped together to form whips. “After what I was exposed to I feel stubborn and I feel for the people in prison what they are exposed to.” He vowed to continue demonstrating.
On February 16 hundreds of judges protested in front of the ministry of justice. The Yemeni student union called for a demonstration that day and hundreds of new demonstrators came out. The university gate was closed by authorities, forcing them to change the direction of their march. At least four police pickup trucks dropped off dozens of balataga by the demonstrators. When they approached the foreign ministry the demonstrators were attacked by balataga and security forces. Students were beaten with chains, clubs and stabbed with daggers. The balataga threw stones as well. Three students were arrested and taken away in a military vehicle in the same area. Foreshadowing what was to come, some of the balataga had pistols and fired shots into the air. Radhwan Masud, head of the student union, maintained that police officers in civilian clothes attacked students. “We know them and their faces,” he said, “they have attacked students in the past. We know them very well. Some students who were hurt didn’t go to hospitals because they were afraid they would be followed by the police.”
Just as the demonstrators were grateful to al Jazeera for its support and its populist reporting, governments throughout the Arab world and their hired thugs hated the satellite channel. The balataga searched the crowds for al Jazeera’s correspondent, Ahmad al Shalafi and attacked the station’s cameraman.
Amir al Gimri, a first year medical student with a hypertrophied leg was unable to escape. He was attacked by police and balataga. They called him a traitor and a spy, slapped his face and threw him on the ground. The beat his head and his legs, including his bad leg, with clubs. They left him on the ground unable to get up. Activists carried took him to the hospital.
Suheil al Kherbash, a 25 years old electrician attended a demonstration for the first time on February 15th after seeing a call on Facebook. “We went to demand removing the regime,” he told me, “the general situation is bad, corruption, bribery, the government is seized by a few people.” Egypt’s revolution was a historic achievement, he said, “it gives us inspiration.” He took part in the next day’s demonstration. The police who were blocking the balataga moved away to allow for the balataga to attack. “We tried to convince the balataga that what they are doing is not ethical and everybody should express themselves and we should not collect at the same place.” Then the emergency police attacked. Suheil was beaten with clubs and electrically stunned in his kidneys. They beat his back and heat with their rifle butts. His friends wrapped a bandage around his head and it quickly was soaked in blood. “I will definitely demonstrate again,” he said.
That day I was sitting in a taxi when a young man at an intersection throwing leaflets into car windows threw one into ours. It said:
“The Yemen Youth Organization with the cooperation of the Yemen Change and Reformation Youth and Future Youth are organizing demonstrations to request more rights and freedom and to remove the representatives of corruption on Thursday and Friday the 17th and 18th of February. Please be with us and on time. The first meeting is in front of the gate of the new Sanaa University. The slogan is peaceful youthful and independent.
The role of independent youth was a new phenomenon which had gained a crucial fillip from Tunisia and Egypt. “We’ve never had real street mobilizations,” Yemeni political scientist Abdulghani al Iryani told me, “Tunisia and Egypt were massively significant. Before Tunisia the opposition had a demonstration of 200. After Tunisia they came in the thousands. After Egypt it became an avalanche. There is a new appreciation of collective power. What the formal political establishment could not do, to bring the people together, the youth protest has succeeded in doing.”
Things continued to escalate on Thursday the 17th, when demonstrations started at 11 AM. Because the balataga were waiting by the university the demonstrators marched to Sanaa’s Ribat street. Their numbers exceeded two thousand that day. Security forces and balataga attacked them on the intersection of Ribat and 60th street. The attackers used stones, clubs and fired many shots into the air. At least thirty demonstrators were injured, some with serious injuries. Samir al Nimri, an al Jazeera cameraman, was badly beaten and his camera was shattered.
The Yemeni regime responded like Arab dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere. But the people’s fear was gone, and the regime’s days were numbered.
That day I took a taxi. It was 3 pm and the driver already had a mouth full of Qat. I asked him if there were any demonstrations today. “In Tahrir square,” he said, referring to the pro government sit in the Yemeni government has arranged. “He has to go,” he said matter of factly, “like in Egypt.” I asked if he expected a revolution in Yemen. “There has to be one,” he said. “How will he go?” I asked. “In a revolution,” he said. “Do all the people think like this?” I asked. “yes,” he said. “What about the army and security forces?” I asked. “When there is a revolution there is no fear,” he said. “But Tahrir square is full of government supporters,” I said. “We’ll remove them,” he smiled, showing me how with his hand. “He has to go, to Saudi Arabia, or France.”
“God grant you victory,” I said as I left. He smiled a big green toothed Qat grin.
The Yemeni Qat chewing habit was evinced as a factor militating against revolution there. In Yemen the daily cycle for most people seems to revolve around Qat, which they start chewing in the early afternoon, halting other activities and often gathering at “Qat chews”. In fact these sessions are where people discuss issues very passionately, and they can be seen as a grass roots democracy, a place where debates are continuous, especially when the press is not free. Thanks to Qat chewing there are no secrets, everybody talks, even ministers participate, and the information travels and spreads. Qat is a stimulant. Its not like being in an opium den. It makes you want to do things, it leads to agitated discussions, it does not prevent activism. Unlike some of their Gulf neighbors, Yemenis are not spoiled and are willing to put up with the hardships of a revolution. When holding sit-ins Qat can actually help, keeping you awake. Unfortunately Qat is also a way for the government to attract balataga.
The demonstrations continued to grow forcing the establishment opposition parties to take a more aggressive stance against the regime and leading to defections of major tribal leaders. Taghir, change, became the semi-official name for the demonstrator’s camp, and even al Jazeera referred to it as such.
Taking advantage of the lack of any strong U.S. response to his regime’s abuses and the earthquake in Japan distracting the world’s attention Saleh’s forces increased their violent crackdown over the weekend of the 12th and 13th of March, killing at least seven protestors while injuring hundreds of others. In a pre dawn raid the youth demonstrators camped by Sanaa University were ambushed with live automatic rifle fire, rubber bullets, electrical stun guns, and some form of gas that caused terrible convulsions. The regime also began to expel the few remaining foreign correspondents covering the protests. Obama’s silence on Saleh’s escalating attacks on demonstrators and its tacit support for his tactics makes it likely that when Saleh falls the government that succeeds him will be less friendly to the United States. President Salih has offered reforms but as in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, once the dictator declares war on his own people his days are numbered. The recent Arab revolts have also shown that once a dictator concedes to the demands of the people he is transferring legitimacy to them, and their victory is inevitable. The chants in Yemen are now “After Qadhafi, oh Ali!”
[This is a longer version of a shorter article appearing in the March 21 issue of the New Statesman]