Yemen releases jailed activists in the face of Tunisia-inspired protesters

Yemen today released nearly three dozen activists, including Towakil Karman, who had led Tunisia-inspired protests last week calling for President Saleh to step down.

Hani Mohammed/AP Photo
A Yemeni man, center, shouts slogans during an anti-government rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Jan. 24. Yemen's president blasted opposition claims of a planned handover of power to his son, describing such talk as "utmost rudeness" and insisting there will be no father-to-son succession in his country.

Protesters in Yemen succeeded in securing the release of nearly three dozen jailed activists today, citing the Tunisia uprising as inspiration for their persistent demands on the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“We the Yemeni people have been patient for years," said Mahfoutha Hassan, an older woman whose red head scarf stood out amongst a sea of black abayas in the female section of a protest in the capital of Sanaa today. "So when the government of Tunis fell, it stirred us up.”

Ms. Hassan says she was impelled to come out after Towakil Karman, one of Yemen’s most prominent and beloved activists, was jailed yesterday morning after leading protests last week in Sanaa calling for President Saleh to step down. Today, after a second consecutive day of demonstrations, she and 35 others were freed, says Mohamed Al Sabry, a former spokesperson for opposition parties.

“The people need to change the government,” says Mr. Sabry, who was one of approximately 800 demonstrators who gathered today in front of the general prosecutor's office, which was responsible for Karman's detention. “Today the people demand a peaceful stability and to change the situation in Yemen…. This is happening across Yemen.”

The protests may be a sign of how Tunisia’s uprising is sending reverberations throughout the Arab world, with Yemenis claiming far broader grounds for revolution than Tunisians had. But analysts are doubtful that protesters can harness that discontent into a similar overthrow of government.

“I don’t think Yemen is ready,” says Nadia Al Sakkaf, editor-in-chief of the local Yemen Times newspaper. “Although we have the readiness in terms of oppression and people boiling, there in not the organization of civil society, the sense of volunteerism, or of people going out to the streets.”

Ms. Sakkaf noted that demonstrations in Yemen only take place in the morning, when the majority of the country is open for business. The time after lunch traditionally is reserved for the consumption of the mild narcotic qat.

“Unless you find a demonstration that is happening in the afternoon, then Yemenis are still not taking their situation seriously,” she said, although she added, “The government has not been wise in dealing with angry masses. It's opening more fronts than it is closing them.”

'We needed the revolution before Tunis'

According to a statement from Yemen’s official Saba news agency, Karman was arrested early Sunday morning on charges of organizing unlicensed rallies, incitement to commit acts of rioting and chaos, and undermining the public social peace.

On Monday, in a possible bid to placate growing discontent, the government announced that Towakil was to be released from prison.

However, the fiery activist – most well-known for publicly removing her niqab, the face veil that nearly all women wear in Yemen, on national TV – refused to leave until all of the others arrested were released along with her. She said would go on a hunger fast until that happened, says Hakima Abdel Salam, an assistant at Karman’s organization, Women Journalists without Chains.

And so, a few hours later, all those arrested during the previous day's protest had been released, said detainee Khaled Al Anisi in a phone interview after he was let free.

“I am a human rights activist. Also, I defend freedom in Yemen and this is the problem,” said Anisi, giving the reason for his arrest.

According to Ms. Salam of Women Journalists without Chains, Towakil was arrested because she "organized the youth against the government.”

“Now the Yemeni youth don’t have any future. In Tunis, they made a revolution with only small reasons. In Yemen we have many, many problems: hunger, poverty, unemployment... We needed the revolution before Tunis.”

According to local press reports, the coalition of opposition parties is calling for a popular uprising against the Saleh regime and plans to hold a large protest in Sanaa on Thursday.

After his release, Anisi told the Monitor: “We are not afraid from what they did for Towakil and us. We will continue fighting for our rights.”

Biggest effect in southern city of Aden

This influx of civil disobedience comes at a time of political deadlock and heightened tension between Yemen's ruling party and the opposition, making the Tunisian uprising resonate particularly with those opposed to Saleh’s 32-year reign.

But the Tunisian revolution seems to be having the largest effect in Aden, a southern port city. It is home to widespread dissent, and a portion of the population is calling for southern Yemen to revert to being its own country, as was the case before unification of north and south Yemen in 1990.

Protests across the city have taken a more violent turn since Tunisia ousted former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, according to Ali Jarallah, a leader in the southern separatist movement in Aden.

“Maybe people will start setting themselves on fire here like what is happening in Egypt,” Mr. Jarallah said in a phone interview last week, one day before local media reported that a man lit himself on fire in the southern Al Beidha province. “But ours is a different issue than Egypt. We don’t want to remove our corrupt regime. We want freedom. We are an occupied people.”

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