Thursday, 24 February 2011

Yemenis want change but not bloody, a Canadian tries to fix the problem

Source : Toronto Star, 25/02/2011

By Michelle Shephard, National Security Reporter

SANAA, YEMEN—Rafat Al-Akhali’s solution for reforming his country sounds, well, so Canadian.

He laughs.

“I know, I know, it does sound so nice. Hey, let’s just be friends.”
Maybe that’s what he gets for living in Calgary and Montreal for the last eight years, only returning home a few weeks ago as revolutions swept the Arab world.

At 28, Al-Akhali grew up under the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and, like many his age, says he was inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled two autocratic presidents.

“But every time we look at that and try to figure out how it’s going to happen here, the scenarios don’t work out,” he said one night this week as he drove through the capital’s downtown.

“We want change, but we don’t want it to be bloody. The corruption is there, the president and regime failed to manage the country properly, unemployment rate is high—Yemen is failing in many aspects.”

But, Al-Akhali stresses what many analysts and politicians have said for weeks—Yemen is different.

“The regime here is intertwined in the social fabric. They’re all tribal heads, they’re all influential, so when you say bring down the regime it’s like bringing down society.”

Al-Akhali, a pharmaceutical distributor who worked at IBM before leaving Canada, had already decided to return here with his wife and two children when Tunisia sparked unrest throughout the region.

But since arriving a few weeks ago he has been trying to meet with government representatives and reaching out to students, in an effort to bridge the gap.

He wants the street movement to become organized and fight for Saleh’s removal, but not immediately, and not until a workable new system is in place.

It’s hardly a sexy option when Yemen’s youth are emboldened by a new-found freedom of expression and want Saleh out now.

Thousands joined the student-led sit-in outside the university gates Thursday, in the biggest crowd in the last two weeks.

Hanging above the protestors who chanted “Ali out,” was a cardboard cut-out out of the president hanging from a street light by a noose.

The students have dubbed the area Al Tagheer (Change) Square and on Thursday hundreds of women joined what had predominantly been an all-male gathering.

Just before sunset, men lounged in tents chewing the leafy narcotic khat while vendors sold nuts, fresh pressed orange juice and barbecued meat from carts. There was even a groom who received a rousing applause for choosing to celebrate his nuptials at the demonstration.

The number of street protestors increased following the fatalities Tuesday night, when government loyalists broke through police lines and shot into the crowd. The Yemen Times identified one of the dead as 34-year-old teacher Awadh al-Soraihi.

Many suspect that mingling with pro-Saleh forces are the government’s security service and what Yemenis call baltagiyah, or thugs, who have been paid by the government – a claim Saleh denies.

In protest over the government violence, nine members of parliament resigned Wednesday. Hours later Saleh ordered all security services to protect the street demonstrators and by Thursday evening, that peace seemed to hold.

Friday’s protest is expected to be the largest yet.

Al-Akhali’s message might be timely, but it’s not the first time he has advocated for a strong youth voice for change.

In early 2010, as he was completing his MBA in Montreal, he started an organization called “Resonate! Yemen” with two Yemeni friends from Calgary.

They wanted to represent the youth to the international community attending London’s “Friends of Yemen” conference on terrorism, which was organized following the failed Christmas Eve attack on a Detroit-bound flight (the Nigerian suspect had links to the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula).

Al-Akhali says he knows his moderate message today is not popular among the majority on the street who want Saleh driven out of the country, but he is hoping to appeal to the leaders who believe change can come in months, not days.

“Some of the people out on the street just want him out. They don’t care if the devil rules them after this,” he says, honking his horn in the congested night street.

“But there are lots of logical people who understand,” he breaks off talking as he is forced to stop behind a driver who has just left his car, then continues, “people who understand that parking in the middle of the street is not a logical thing.”

In other words, if Yemen has been governed like the traffic here, where it seems acceptable to drive on the wrong side of the road, then some basic rules have to be in place to avoid a major pile up.

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