With Saleh digging in, Yemen protests take on permanent look

McClatchy NewspapersMay 12, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — When demonstrations began in February aimed at toppling long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh, they were of a humble size, filling only the area immediately outside the entrance to Sanaa University, an area now known as Change Square.

Now as the movement enters its fourth month, the sit-in has swollen to a veritable tent city that stretches nearly two miles, shutting off traffic in a large portion of the nation's capital and resembling a shantytown. Many tents there have a permanent look, wired for electricity, satellite television and, in many cases, wireless Internet service.

Still, the demonstrators seem no closer to achieving their goal. A supposed agreement that would have had Saleh resign, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, appears to have fallen through, with neither the demonstrators nor Saleh willing to support it.

"How can anything headed by the GCC lead to democracy," commented Abdulrahman Abdullah al Kamadi, a demonstrator who has been camped out in the square for over two months.

"The emirates and kingdoms of the GCC are the enemy of any revolution. They cannot even admit what is going on here. This is not a political crisis: this is a revolution."

On Wednesday, gunfire broke out here as army troops loyal to Saleh moved against the demonstrators in what appeared to be an effort to push them back from the huge swath of territory they've claimed over the weeks. More than a dozen protesters were killed in the four-hour firefight, but the pro-Saleh forces gained no ground, and protesters were putting up new structures Thursday.

"We have no fear of violence," said Bassem Moghram, one the leaders of the young people who make up the heart of the protest movement. "Freedom is not cheap."

Where the protest movement will go is uncertain. Similar tent cities have sprung up in other Yemeni cities, and the political turmoil is showing itself in growing hardship for the average Yemeni. Gas rationing, water shortages and power outages have become commonplace in many parts of the country; and the cost of food has risen, as the value of the Yemeni rial has plunged.

Yemen's oil industry has been particularly affected; with production dropping nearly 50 percent, the result of damaged pipelines and the temporary closure of some oil facilities.

Amir al Aydarous, the country's oil minister, recently told the state-run news agency that continued unrest could lead to "catastrophe beyond imagination." Yemen's modest oil reserves provide nearly 70 percent of the government's revenues.

The movement itself remains largely leaderless. While some of the demonstrators are affiliated with opposition parties, most continue to fiercely assert their independence. Images of slain former President Ibrahim al Hamdi, who ran the country from 1974 to 1977, far outnumber images of current opposition leaders.

"We will talk about parties when we are talking about elections," said Ibrahim Yayha al Kulani. "Until then, we will remain one united front, not differentiating between party, region or sect."

Various self-described "revolutionary youth committees" have sprouted in different areas of Yemen. Notably, the past weeks have seen growing cooperation between groups in different cities, culminating in the formation this week of a single, nationwide "Media Council of the Revolution." Another group, the Supreme Coordination Council of the Revolution, has called for a series of marches, strikes and camp expansions, culminating in a march Tuesday on the Presidential Palace.

For its part, the U.S., for which Saleh has been a key ally in the war on terror, and the European Union remain supportive of the GCC plan, which would grant Saleh immunity from prosecution for the hundreds of deaths suffered in the crackdown on the protests. The young people who've remained camped out in protest reject that idea in particular, and many Yemen observers believe the GCC plan is doomed.

"It is a mistake for the United States to continue to let the GCC take the lead on this, both for the future of Yemen as well as for U.S. security interests," commented Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University. "The U.S. must take the lead in constructively shaping a post-Saleh Yemen."

Others say the U.S. support for any plan makes it unworkable.

"This is not even just a GCC plan," said Feris al Areeqi, a professor of engineering at Sanaa University. "This is a GCC-EU-USA plan. How can they intervene positively when they have supported Saleh?"

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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