Why Yemen's youths are not bowing to government pressure, violence

Despite brutal attacks against them throughout the past week, Yemen’s idealistic youths continue to be the main voice pressing for regime change. Monday, they engaged in a peaceful sit-in.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Yemeni anti-government demonstrators sleep on a pavement where they are camping in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday. Yemen's youths at Sanaa University have refused to give in to pressure and even gunfire as they demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down.

Yemen protesters have returned to the main entrance of Sanaa University to stage a sit-in, calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down and defying the police and plain-clothed government supporters who opened fire on them Saturday.

“God willing, we will be here until the system falls,” Adel Al Suraby said Sunday night as other demonstrators, mostly young men in their 20s, danced behind him in the celebratory atmosphere. Others laid large blue tarps out on the ground for the protesters to sit on overnight.

Despite the brutal attacks against them throughout the past week, Yemen’s idealistic and determined younger population continues to be the main voice pressing for regime change, as was initially the case in Egypt. Yet unlike in Egypt, these youths are trying to mobilize a highly uneducated population, many of whom lack access to the Internet and believe that ousting President Saleh will prove too bloody of an affair due to Yemen’s highly armed population.

"The situation here is totally different from Egypt. Here in Yemen there are very few that use technology like Facebook and Twitter,” says student protester Hamid Al Shamy. “Yemen is a developing country, and the people who know how to use these technologies are very small. They are just the students.”

Yemen protesters get organized

Still on Sunday, the young protesters in Sanaa seemed to have defeated one of their main problems: disorganization.

After a week of protests in which the location, time, and purpose were flexible until the last minute, Sunday’s demonstration was much more structured.

There was a tent for medical services, free dinner, and even an impromptu checkpoint on the perimeters of the sit-in. Some of the plain-clothes thugs who have been attacking protesters carry pistols in their jacket pockets.

“We are still in the beginning,” youth leader Faiz Noman said.

Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen based at Princeton University in New Jersey, says the protests' increasing intensity underscores that protesters are starting to believe in their power to change the political order.

"We haven't yet reached the point in Yemen where it is clear that President Saleh will be forced to step down, but Yemenis are, for the first time, beginning to believe that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt can also happen in Yemen, and that is a major change in the mindset of most,” he wrote by e-mail.

In a press conference Monday morning, however, the president rejected demands to step down and said that if protesters "want power, they must reach it through the ballot boxes." He said the protests are part of an “influenza” spreading around the Middle East.

Youths weary of corruption, monarchy

These youths, more tuned into the rest of the world than ever before, say that they are tired of the corruption that riddles Yemeni society. Many of them are unemployed.

“I graduated from university in 2006,” says Noman Al Shurahy. “People told me that I had to pay 5,000 rials ($23) to get a job. Can you believe that, that I had to pay money to find a job?”

“We want the president to come from the people. Not Ali Saleh’s sons,” says Ruqaya Al Qawas, who was handing out cookies at the protest.

She echoed the common distrust protesters felt toward Saleh when he said in a conciliatory speech two weeks ago that there would be “no inheritance” in Yemen’s leadership.

Many protesters also express confusion as to why the United States continues to give aid to their president, who has ruled for 32 years. Because the threat from Al Qaeda has little or no effect on their lives, these young people don’t understand the crux of American policy toward Yemen – counterterrorism.

“Why do the Americans support the oppression of Saleh?” asks Faruq Abdelmalek.

Holding their ground

Protesters have vowed that they will not be intimidated by the plain-clothed thugs who have routinely attacked them.

On Saturday, after protesters held their ground and yelled “Don’t be afraid” when government supporters shot live ammunition into the air about three blocks away, the gunfire began to be directed at them. At least four protesters were shot, one of whom remains in critical condition.

After a week of violence, Yemen’s coalition of opposition parties finally pledged their support for the young protesters on Sunday. In a statement, the coalition said that they "warmly tribute the actions of youths and civil society" and would "unite with the young protesters" to demonstrate against "the continued oppression, tyranny, and corruption.”

But protester Adel Al Abasy says that the northern tribes who protect Saleh in times of trouble will make it difficult to bring about regime change. And most Yemeni men, he adds, are comfortable sitting back and chewing the popular narcotic qat on their afternoons, instead of joining the protests.

“If there was no chewing qat," he adds, "[revolution] would be easier."

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