Yemen youths defiant despite power transfer deal

Filed on December 5, 2011

SANAA — President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s inking of a power transfer deal has failed to convince thousands of Yemeni youths who are still staging a sit-in demonstration, proclaiming their revolution far from over.

Protesters from the “Youth Revolution” who initiated the uprising accuse traditional opposition parties, backed by prominent tribal forces, of having stolen their revolt by sharing power with Saleh’s regime.

Hammud Hazza, an activist who camps in Change Square — the epicentre of anti-regime protests in Sanaa since February — insists that “we have no alternative to the revolution.”

“Our main demands are: not to grant Saleh any immunity; to overthrow all members of his regime; and to establish a modern state,” said Hazza.

The Gulf-brokered deal which Saleh signed on November 23 grants immunity to him and members of his family — who control basic security and military institutions in the country — if he transfers all his powers to his deputy by February.

During the three-month period which began when he signed the UN-backed accord that he had stalled signing for months, Saleh stays on as an honorary president.

Unimpressed protesters still spend their nights in Change Square, a huge camp of hundreds of tents set up outside Sanaa University which has spread to surrounding streets across the capital’s north.

The camp has grown into a small town within Sanaa where a podium stands from which speeches are made each day, surrounded by small shops that sell civilian and military suits.

A market sells qat — a soft narcotic leaf that contains cathin and cathinone, which Yemenis chew for hours — alongside sandwiches, juice and traditional herbs and spices.

The square is protected by dissident troops led by General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar whose soldiers were locked in deadly battles with Saleh’s forces in which hundreds have been killed, many of them civilians.

Steps taken by the regime and the opposition to implement the Gulf plan, including the formation of a government of national unity and a commission to oversee the restructuring of the security forces, have not diminished the ardour of protesters.

Some have even started converting their tents into permanent mud brick buildings, apparently sending messages to both the government and the opposition alike that they are unconcerned by any agreement that does not see all members of Saleh’s regime out of power and bring him to trial.

“We are going ahead with our sit-in because we do not believe that Saleh will implement the Gulf deal,” says Mohammed al-Assal, a leading youth activist.

Khaled al-Madani, who represents the Shiite Zaidi rebels in Change Square, accuses the parliamentary opposition of having “hijacked the revolution and betrayed the blood of the martyrs to take its part of the pie.”

Independent activist Bassam al-Asbahi said “our revolution is against tribalism and backwardness.

“We know that we are against everyone — the president, the opposition, Saudi Arabia, and all super powers sponsoring the Gulf Initiative,” he said.

Asbahi said younths were divided between those in support of the opposition, including the influential Islamist Al-Islah (reform) party, and independent activists who have higher demands.

Parliamentary opposition leaders were “influenced by the tribes and do not really support our demands,” he added.

But it is Al-Islah figure Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, also a wealthy tribal leader, who financially backs the protesters.

Every day, the businessman provides protesters in the impoverished country’s Change Square with hot meals — the traditional rice with meat, chicken, and spices.

“The parliamentary opposition parties have a real historically important base in Yemen, as well as the financial and organising means by which they could keep the youths in the square,” said political analyst Fares al-Saqqaf.

“Without financing from these parties, Change Square would have been over,” said Saqqaf, who heads the Yemeni Centre for Future Studies based in Sanaa.

The parliamentary opposition parties use the youths to apply pressure on the president who has clung to 33 years of power.

“These parties realise that they are the youths who have forced Saleh to sign the deal, therefore these youths present a strategic reserve which the parties use to press the president to implement the initiative,” said Saqqaf.

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