Protests Aside, Yemen’s Leader Has His Followers
Source: The New York Times,
By LAURA KASINOF, 21/06/2011
SANA, Yemen — Out of the ancient, ornate mud brick buildings and across the narrow alleyways where barefoot children play, a chant emerges frequently in the old walled city here in the capital. Seemingly at random, someone will raise his voice to announce: “The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh!”
Mr. Saleh’s government has suffered high-level defections and the loss of international support. The exact state of his health remains in question after an attack on the presidential compound forced him to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia. Crowds in the capital on Monday demanded that his sons also leave.
Still, the embattled Yemeni president has his fervent followers, especially in the old city.
“I am 100 percent sure that he’ll come back,” said Mohammed al-Ghaithi, a high school student who with his brother mans the family shop in a neighborhood of the old city, Al Jala, known for its historic bathhouse.
Their numbers are impossible to gauge with certainty, and motives among them are hardly uniform. Many of the tribesmen who show up at pro-Saleh rallies on Fridays are shipped in from across the country and paid by their sheikhs, who are in turn paid by the government. Thousands gather, and even illiterate people hold signs that read “yes to constitutional legitimacy.”
For months, Mr. Saleh gave weekly speeches at the rallies, and the ostentatious shows of support helped him justify keeping his grip on power in the face of the far larger and more organic antigovernment sit-ins here and around the country.
Also among the pro-Saleh camp: hundreds of paid thugs who roam the streets of Sana, with batons in hand ready to beat up a stray young antigovernment protester at random, and ruling party businessmen who greatly benefited from the corruption of the Saleh government.
However, many of the residents of the old city, whom Yemenis tend to stereotype as simple and kind, fit a different mold — though they do attend pro-Saleh rallies on occasion and many have low-level government jobs.
They are neither incredibly poverty-stricken nor involved in tribal warfare. With schools and hospitals near at hand and peace in the streets, they say they feel that Mr. Saleh brought them the stability in which they want to live their lives.
“The first thing is that people in Old Sana are educated,” Mr. Ghaithi said. “But another important thing is that there is more security here than any other place in the capital. We feel that this security comes from Saleh.”
When Mr. Saleh returns from Saudi Arabia, said Abdullah Swaid, a shopkeeper, “we will make the biggest feast in the world.”
“It’s going to stretch from Tahrir Square to 70th Street,” he said, referring to a square that is dominated by a pro-Saleh camp and a stretch of street about a mile away where pro-government rallies are held on Fridays.
There is a tent set up at the antigovernment protest camp in Sana University representing the old city, but several protesters say their car tires have been slashed when parked near their homes in the old city.
One evening, days after Mr. Saleh went to Saudi Arabia, his supporters celebrated by shooting Kalashnikovs into the air for hours when official media announced that he had come out of surgery successfully. Some people in the old city said it sounded as if war had broken out.
Local press carried reports of hundreds of people being injured by the falling bullets and of several being killed. The loyalists say they will light up the sky again with gunfire when Mr. Saleh returns from Riyadh.
“It was a miracle that he didn’t die,” Mr. Swaid said, sitting cross-legged on the ground in his shop, which was dark — there is very little electricity in Sana these days. “Everyone around him died. And somehow he didn’t die.”
The old city, where posters of a dapper-looking Mr. Saleh are plastered throughout, is also marked by a distinct hatred for Mr. Saleh’s main tribal rivals, the Ahmars, who were engaged in a bloody battle with the government for about two weeks early this month.
One afternoon, children were throwing their shoes at a scurrying rat. “That’s Hamid al-Ahmar!” they yelled, naming the most outspoken of the family. Adults make scoffing noises when any of the Ahmars are mentioned.
Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a prominent Yemeni political analyst, said that in the unlikely event that the Ahmars took power, people would flock back to Mr. Saleh’s side and even “take up arms.”
But if there is a relatively peaceful transfer of power —as the United States and Saudi Arabia are seeking — Mr. Iryani said hard-core supporters would most likely accept the reality that Mr. Saleh’s rule was finished. After all, many high-ranking members of the ruling party are in favor of such a proposal, brokered by Persian Gulf nations, which Mr. Saleh declined but was resuscitated after he left the country.
Of course, not everyone in the old city supports him.
While chatting around Mr. Ghaithi’s shop in Al Jala, a friend, Rami Hani, yelled as one of his neighbors walked by. “He’s an Islahi, he’s an Islahi,” he said, meaning a member of the most-powerful opposition party. As Mr. Hani made a pejorative gesture, the man hurried around a corner.
One night, a group of three men stood chatting quietly outside a dry cleaning shop lined with racks of the suit jackets that men from northern Yemen wear over their white robes.
“I go to the university at times during the week,” said Mohammed, who did not want his last name used out of fear of retaliation. “But on Fridays, my dad beats me if I don’t go to 70th Street.”