Yemen: Don’t Change Our Square!

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A boy climbs on a fence during an anti-government rally in Sanaa 8 June 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

By: Jamal Jubran

Published Saturday, June 9, 2012

Opinions are divided among activists about attempts to wind down the protest site at the heart of an aborted – or unfinished – revolution.

Sanaa - The revolution game is over. Mission accomplished: you managed to get rid of the president. Now it’s time to pack up your tents and go back to your homes and classrooms.

That was the message conveyed to Yemen’s revolutionary youth on Wednesday when bulldozers began clearing large areas of Sanaa’s Change Square – their base since February last year, in whose defense hundreds of protesters were shot by the troops of deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh.

The declared reason for the move was that the tents were impeding ambulances’ access to the large hospital nearby. But they have been there a long time, and nobody raised the issue before. This prompted hundreds of young people to demonstrate in protest at the removal of the tents. The Higher Organizing Committee of the Revolution later declared the site was not being cleared but only rearranged, in order to fill gaps created by the departure of groups of protesters from the provinces who had been encamped there.

But this explanation failed to convince many of the revolutionary youth. One group sought to ascend the podium on Wednesday evening to address people in the square and urge them to remain until all the revolution’s aims are achieved. They were assaulted by troops from General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar’s First Armored Brigade along with stick- and knife-wielding youths said to have been from the Islamist Islah party.

Many of the young protesters in Change Square feel deceived and betrayed.

“We were duped by the (former opposition) Joint Meeting parties, after they managed to get into government and remove Ali Abdallah Saleh,” activist Mohammad al-Adaini told Al-Akhbar. He recalled that the current prime minister, Mohammad Salim Basindwa, had personally come to the square and urged the youth not to leave until all the objectives of the revolution were fulfilled. “But he has forgotten all about that now that he is settled in the prime minister’s chair.”

Another activist, Huda al-Nusairi, noted that the so-called “Gulf Initiative” – the deal under which Saleh stepped down in exchange for immunity from prosecution – had stipulated that protest sites would be left unmolested. “They are reneging on that by clearing the square,” she said.

She attributed the move to “foreign orders given to the government at the Friends of Yemen conference” recently held in the Saudi capital Riyadh. “They made evacuating the squares a condition for providing the money which the big powers have promised Yemen to help it out of the suffocating crises that are threatening its stability.”

There had been earlier indications that moves were afoot to begin clearing Change Square.

The committee overseeing the provision of food and medical treatment to protesters at the field hospital attached to the square had cut down the daily amount of food it used to supply.

A leading Islah figure, billionaire Hamid al-Ahmar, meanwhile launched a verbal attack against the Change Square protesters, accusing them of immoral behavior. His remarks to The New York Times charging that the square had become a discotheque and lovers’ rendezvous caused an outcry, forcing him to claim he had been misquoted.

US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein – who since the signing of the Gulf Initiative has been acting like the country’s military governor – also seems to have had a hand in things. He was reported to have announced at a meeting at the First Armored Brigade’s headquarters that the time had come to clear the square and allow traffic to pass through it again. On the very same say, the security detail posted by the Brigade at the entrances to the square was withdrawn, leaving it unguarded.

Yet not all the activists who have been involved in the protests oppose vacating the square. Many believe the encampment has exhausted its purpose. Activist Ali al-Daini said Change Square was no longer the inspirational revolutionary hub it used to be. “It has been turned into an arena for score-settling by the political parties, and for making money,” he said. “There is Saudi, Qatari and Iranian money pouring in, with each party trying to attract as many of the youth as possible to its side.”

But other groups are adamant that they will not leave the square. They include the Shabab al-Sumoud (Steadfast Youth), who support the Houthi movement in the north, and have pledged to provide for the needs of protesters who remain. The Independent Youth Group has also said it will not leave the square until Saleh’s cronies are tried for killing their fellow protesters. Activist Majed al-Dhari welcomed the prospect of parties like Islah abandoning the square. “This is an opportunity to clear the square of the political parties which have damaged the purity of the revolution. Now it will be able to regain its original spirit,” he said.

Even if the protesters are removed from Change Square in Sanaa, Yemen’s Government of National Accord faces a similar challenge in Freedom Square in Taiz, the country’s second city. It is far less subject to inter-party feuding, and thus seems capable of sustaining itself for a lot longer, whatever happens to its counterpart in the capital.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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