Thursday, 9 June 2011

Nervous protesters press for Saleh’s ouster, and supporters celebrate his recovery

Nervous protesters press for Saleh’s ouster
Source: FT, 10/06/2011

By Abeer Allam in Sanaa

Change Square, Yemen’s equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, looks more like a street fair than the hotbed of the revolution. What is better described as a kilometre-long stretch of road is occupied by a line of yellow, red and blue plastic tents occupied by the peaceful protesters who have, since January, been demanding the ouster of president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

On a balmy Sana’a evening this week, dozens lingered on the pavements where street vendors roasted corn, peeled off cactus fruit and sold bags of khat, the mild narcotic. Others lined up prayer rugs ready for sunset prayers and many more remained in their cushioned tents drinking “change tea” while watching the news from televisions attached to small satellite dishes.

Protesters bragged that they had the record for the Arab Spring’s most resilient protests. They admitted, however, that their numbers have dropped dramatically in recent weeks since fighting erupted between Saleh loyalists and supporters of Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of the powerful Hashid tribe, and the June 4 attack on Mr Saleh’s presidential compound that wounded the president and forced him to fly to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

Last week’s heavy fighting forced thousands of Sana’a residents to flee to the countryside while others have simply abandoned the square and joined their tribes in the armed battles.

Those protesters left remain cautiously optimistic that the president’s stay in Saudi Arabia will be permanent.

But with the swirling rumours, fed mainly by state television about his recovery and imminent return, many are also nervous. “We will not allow him to return. His departure is the first step in the success of our revolution. If he returned, we would put him on trial,” declared Iman Adnan, a 21-year-old housewife, who had her two toddlers with her.

Another protester, Kawthar al-Salawi, 24, and Ms Adnan were coming to the square every day but the latest violence has forced them to visit only twice a week. “We want a civil state and end of corruption,’’ said Ms Salawi. “But it will never happen as long as the ruling party is in charge, we want them all out, not just Saleh.’’

Western and Gulf countries have accelerated efforts to convince Mr Saleh to formally step aside and lend his backing to a transitional administration. But until that happens Sana’a remains caught in a curious limbo.

In an apparent show of defiance and power residents of Sana’a were kept awake into the early hours on Thursday by long bursts of machinegun fire and fireworks that turned the dark sky into sparkling red and silver. The bursts were mingled with occasional sounds of women ululating, men chanting and cars honking in what state television described as a “celebratory fire” to mark the “success” of Mr Saleh’s surgery and imminent return.

While state television broadcast images of people carrying the Yemeni flag and posters of Mr Saleh while dancing in the streets, opposition activists took the gunfire as a warning of the potential shape of things to come if Mr Saleh is forced to sign an unsatisfactory deal.

“Ali Saleh wants to scare us off but we have seen worse,’’ said Hussein Abdel Wahed, who, four months ago, moved to Change Square from Al-Dalea, near the southern province of Ibb.

“We wanted secession of the south because he had marginalised and deprived us of freedom and our wealth. If he is gone, we do not think secession [is the answer]. But we want our revolution to be completed.”

Hussein al-Muhwaiti, a shopkeeper and Saleh supporter, said he would like to see an orderly transition to democracy through ballot boxes rather than street protests. “The al-Ahmar sheikhs [who lead the Hashid tribe] have stolen Change Square,’’ he said. “They want to force the president out, though they were his partners ... ’’

Others voiced concern that time is on Mr Saleh’s side and people are divided more than ever about the point of the protests.

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