Yemen students to politicians: Don't hijack our revolution

Yemen's political opposition joined youths on the streets of Sanaa for the first time today, but many young people see leaders as trying to tap their movement for the wrong reasons.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Antigovernment protesters shout slogans as they wave Yemen national flags during a protest demanding the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh outside Sanaa University on March 1. Tens of thousands of protesters flooded Yemen's streets on Tuesday, dedicating a fresh 'Day of Rage' to the 24 people killed in demonstrations demanding an end to Saleh's three-decade rule.

Yemen's political opposition officially joined youth protesters on the streets of Sanaa for the first time today, swelling the size of the demonstration but also raising fears that the students' revolution would be hijacked for political purposes.

Yemen’s coalition of opposition parties, the Joint Meetings Parties (JMP), deemed today a 'day of rage' – even though Yemen has already had two such days in the past month. But the only leading JMP representative was Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a man who had close ties with President Ali Abdullah Saleh until suddenly renouncing him yesterday.

Mr. Zindani's loquacious speech about the return of the Islamic caliphate drew many followers of his Islamist Al Islah party, but it had little to do with the demands of the student movement.

Despite demonstrators yelling a periodic “Amen” to his speech, Zindani is seen as a prime example of how politicians and tribal leaders are trying to utilize the youth movement for their own aims, unconnected to students' largely secular demands for an end to corruption and oppression. Many of the young people who are the heart of this grassroots protest movement are adamant that political parties and rivalries have no place in their revolution.

"There is serious concern that a tribal-religious alliance might hijack the revolution, but until now we still don’t see it,” says independent Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, who said he thought Zindani was joining the protests simply to be on the winning side in Yemen’s current shaky political climate.

Protesters question Zindani, JMP's support

But numerous protesters in attendance today spoke out against the motives of Zindani and the JMP for joining the protest. Despite several members of the JMP publicly stating that they agreed with the demands of the youth movement, they joined the fray weeks after protests began – and, officially, only to protest violence used against protesters in the southern port city of Aden.

“The position of the JMP came late,” says Abdel Malek Sharaf el-Deen, a student, at Tuesday morning’s protest. “Their stance at the beginning was in the middle. It was a passive stance. They only come now after they saw the killing in the streets.”

Some students have softened their negative views of the JMP, which they saw as being too close to the ruling party and unwilling to bring down Mr. Saleh, but say youths must still take the lead in the uprising.

“Even those who don’t want the president to go cannot stop the will of the people,” says law student Mohamed al-Thawr.

Soltan Alsamie, an independent member of parliament agrees: “The snowball of the avalanche is rolling down and its getting bigger and bigger," he says in an interview. "It’s having its own track. It will determine the passage."

“This sit-in will continue even after the revolution to make sure that we have good people in the government, like the Egyptians,” adds Mr. Thawr, the law student sitting under a blue tarp at Tuesday’s protest.

“The issue is not to fix the system. The problem is that we don’t have a system,” he says, referring to lack of centralized rule of law in Yemen.

'We have to work together'

The JMP is itself a divided entity. Some of its leaders were involved in the background in organizing the protests prior to today, especially in the central city of Taiz, home to Yemen’s largest demonstration. But other leaders, chiefly the head of the Islah party, Abdul Wahab al-Anesi, have been slow to join.

“The young people will stay here in spite of whatever the JMP decides,” says Mohamed al-Hababy, an employee at the Interior Ministry who recently resigned from the ruling party. When asked about the amount of corruption at the ministry he simply replied: “I swear, the corruption is up to here,” holding his hand to his neck.

Shaher Ali Mohamed, a doctor who belongs to the socialist party, says neither side can afford to isolate themselves. “We have to work together: the JMP and the youth because we have a very simple target: leave,” he says.

However, when Mr. Mohamed was talking, a group of young men interrupted to reiterate to the doctor that the street protests were dissociated from Yemen’s socialists, the majority of whom come from the south where there formally was a Soviet Union-backed socialist state.

“The JMP may say they will enter. But they are not the leaders of this revolution," says activist Mohammed Mahmoud, who is young and unemployed. "The revolution belongs to the youth."

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