In Yemen's 'Change Square,' demonstrators remain defiant

McClatchy NewspapersApril 24, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — Protesters in Yemen remained committed Sunday to continuing demonstrations despite President Ali Abdullah Saleh's seeming acceptance of a Gulf-mediated proposal that would lead to his exit soon.

Under terms of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) plan, the embattled leader will receive legal immunity in exchange for handing power to his vice president within the next thirty days. The plan, which has been welcomed by leaders in the United States and Europe, calls for elections to follow sixty days after Saleh's resignation. Leaders of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of Yemen's opposition parties, have conditionally accepted the deal.

Since February, widespread protests have gripped the nation of Yemen. Sanaa's University Square, since dubbed "Change Square," has been the center of a sprawling tent city as tens of thousands of protesters have maintained a sit-in as they call for the fall of the Yemeni regime. Within the carnival-like campsite, which has spread over dozens of city blocks, vendors hawk goods while music and speeches are broadcast from the center of the square.

Despite reports of the president's acceptance of the GCC plan, protesters continued to pack the square on Sunday, the mood remaining one of defiance rather than celebration. Opinion among protesters remained strongly against the deal despite the JMP's acceptance of it. Protesters insist that they cannot accept any deal that gives Saleh legal immunity, preserves the structure of the existing regime, or does not lead to his immediate departure.

While leaders of the JMP _ an eclectic grouping that includes secular, socialist and Islamist parties_ have participated in the anti-government demonstrations, many activists remain deeply skeptical of the parliamentary opposition, viewing them as a part of Saleh's regime.

"The GCC plan is unacceptable," commented Salah Sharafi, a prominent youth activist. "They have failed even to consult us."

“The JMP is not leading this revolution,” echoed Hossam al-Sunaidy, another youth activist. “Our party is the revolution,” he added, “Our leader is our goals.”

These attitudes were not confined to the so-called revolutionary youth. On the other side of the square, some seven dozen tents away, Abdullah Auraimy, a 57-year old former soldier, echoed the youth leaders’ comments.

“We will not leave until he does,” he vowed. “What the parties say is meaningless if the people are against it.”

Entisser al-Hadali, a school principal, said that “the women of the revolution will continue to support our sons and brothers in peacefully struggling for a better Yemen. We cannot stop until we obtain our goals of human rights and the fall of the regime.”

For his part, President Saleh sent mixed messages Sunday, referring to the protests as a "coup" during an interview with the BBC.

"I will not be subject to a minority," Saleh said, reported Saba, Yemen’s state news agency, noting that Saleh has agreed to step down only if the majority of the Yemeni people demanded it. During the interview, the Yemeni leader referred to the Gulf Initiative as a "temporary treatment," repeating that he would deal with the Gulf Initiative within the framework of the nation's constitution, implying that he intends to stay on until the holding of elections.

Saleh's continued maneuvering comes as no surprise to many protesters. "Our president is known for saying one thing in the night and the opposite in the morning," commented Taha Yahya, a teacher in Sanaa. "This is why we will not leave the square until the fall of the regime.

(Baron is a special McClatchy correspondent.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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