Since Saleh's departure, rifts between Yemen's diverse community leaves organisers wondering what step to take next.
26 Jun 2011
Since President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure immediately after the presidential palace was attacked June 3, tensions within Change Square have become more visible. Many demonstrators in Sana'a are now turning their attention towards their leadership, which is comprised of twenty individuals collectively known as the organising committee. The committee handles the logistics and coordinates demonstrations on behalf of demonstrators. Its critics accuse it of marginalising the voice of the youth while monopolising the decision making. Salah al-Sharafi, founder of the Union of Movements for Independent Youth, says that many of the youth have tried to voice their concerns to the committee, but to no avail.
Sharafi, along with other protesters, accuse organisers of patronising for the religiously conservative Islah party. "They aren't trying to solve problem because they are getting their orders from people on top, from men like Hamid Ahmar." A successful businessman, Hamid al-Ahmar heads Islah and comes from one of the most powerful tribes in Yemen, the Hashid confederation. Hamid's older brother, Sadiq al-Ahmar, heads the tribe and came out in support of the opposition this past March. Many believe the Ahmar family is simply using the youth movement as a stepping stone to power.
Demonstrators have begun to publicly dissent by holding daily sit-ins. According to Sharafi, participants are routinely beaten by members of Islah and the security committee, which handles security matters within the Square. "Islah wants to silence us and to co-opt our movement so they can lead negotiations," says Sharafi. Although tensions between opposition youth and organisers have existed for some time, the tipping point came when a few demonstrators organised a sit-in near Vice President Abd al Rab Mansur al Hadi's home on June 8. Hadi took over as acting president after Saleh's departure. Demonstrators were beaten and chased away by soldiers from General Ali Muhsin's 1st Armored Division. Muhsin defected in March and pledged to protect demonstrators within the Square. Sharafi says that soldiers called demonstrators thugs and accused them of working for the regime. He continued, "they beat us with sticks but we refused to leave. So they opened fire into the air and people began running out of fear."
Troublemakers are the real problem
Freelance reporter and activist Fares Shamsan says the soldiers were sent by the organising committee because they did not approve of the sit-in. The committee, however, denies involvement. According to their spokesman Wasim al-Qureishi, "We did not support the sit-in because it placed the lives of demonstrators' in danger. But we had nothing to do with the soldiers being there." Al-Qureishi says the area is considered a danger zone by the committee because Ahmed Ali- the son of President Saleh and commander of the elite Republican Guard- is engaged in a current power struggle with Hadi. He points to an incident on June 6, when a small force from the Republican Guard attacked Hadi's home with gunfire. "Muhsin's soldiers did not feel it was safe for demonstrators to be there and did not want to be drawn into violent confrontation with the Republican Guard. We had nothing to do with their decision to attack protesters and were very upset when we found out." Sharafi says this is not the first time that the organising committee has rejected a youth-organised demonstration. According to him, the difference now is that soldiers show up to forcibly disperse demonstrators. Al-Qureishi however says the accusations are false. "We told them to provide us with names of organisers giving out these orders. We asked for evidence. They never provided it." Al-Qureishi says that the real problem lies with troublemakers sent by the regime to sow divisions within the Square. "They were sent to weaken the revolution. They encourage the youth to go into these dangerous areas. We ask them to reconsider, but they refuse. We can't stop them; they do what they want in the end."
However, Shamsan says the idea of submitting names of specific individuals is absurd and says that organisers are using the same line of argument as President Saleh. "During the start of protests, Saleh would also claim his soldiers were guarding demonstrators. Whenever we were attacked, he would tell us to provide him names of those responsible. At the same time, he and his supporters would accuse us of being spies. What is he doing protecting spies then? Does this make much sense? And now the committee is starting to sound more and more like the regime. It's very troubling."
In another incident a week after the sit-in, Sharafi and a few other demonstrators attempted to get on stage to condemn organisers and the security committee. "The security committee stopped us before we could get on stage," says Sharafi. "They asked us why we spoke bad of the organisers and I told them because you do not represent the revolutionaries. You work for Islah." Sharafi says he was then beaten and detained by the men. "They control the stage. They are stealing our voice." When Sharafi's friends, including Shamsan, went to look for him at the security committee's office, they were told by its head Nabil Gerbani that he was detained because he had stabbed two soldiers. According to Shamsan, they did not believe the accusation and decided to look into it by visiting the makeshift hospital and nearby Science and Technology hospital to see if any stab victims had recently been admitted. The doctors from both facilities told them that no one had come in recently with any stab wounds. "We returned to the security committee and demanded they release Salah, but Nabil told us to get a lawyer. We then approached an attorney in the Square and asked him to come with us. When we headed back, Nabil Gerbani had left and someone else took over his shift." Shamsan says they demanded the release of their friend and decided to remain in the office until he was released. The committee eventually released him at two in the morning.
Harassment is nothing new
When asked about the incident, al-Qureishi says the security committee was attempting to keep order and decorum within the Square. "Some young people were calling for members in the committee to step down and be replaced. We've already replaced members several times since the start of the revolution. But when you have thousands of people in the Square, you can't please everyone. The security committee asked them to get off the stage but they refused, so they were arrested."
Salah, who himself used to be a member of Islah, says that he left the party because he realised he did not share their views. "Islah is filled with fundamentalists. They do not respect the rights of others and threaten people who disagree with them." According to Izzedin Ayadi, a demonstrator, members of Islah routinely threaten and harass people inside the Square. In a recent incident, Ayadi says three young men were beaten by members of Islah for dancing under the stage. "They were told that it is a sin to dance in the presence of women."
Demonstrators say that the harassment is nothing new and that Islah has been attempting to assert control since the start of the revolution. Ihsan al-Dugaysh, 33, says that members from Islah began threatening her when she set up a tent and began to offer daily lessons to children staying in the square with their families. She taught a co-ed class and students ranged in age from five to ten. About a month into the lessons in late February, Ihsan was warned to stop giving the lessons. "They demanded I stop teaching both boys and girls in the same setting. I refused. They sent their thugs to take apart the tent that I used as a makeshift classroom and I was forced to stop teaching." Ihsan warns that Islah is filled with extremists and says that they pose a danger to the movement and the future of Yemen. "They are given too much power in the square. If we don't stop them now, extremists will be running this country. They don't want progress for Yemen, especially for its women."
According to political analyst Abdullah M Hamidaddin, the Ahmar family and Ali Muhsin are primarily to blame for the rift in the square. "Today I think it's more an aggregate of decision makers, with no one central in command. But overall I believe the Ahmars are the main driving force behind this all." Khaled al-Anesi, human rights attorney and one of the main organisers in Change Square, says he handed in his resignation to the organising committee two months ago. "I saw that they were not taking the demands of the youth seriously. They were taking their cues from political parties and those involved with the GCC-mediated initiative. The youth on the other hand want a new script. They seek the immediate establishment of a transitional council." Al-Anesi believes that the Joint Meeting Parties, the official opposition, is influencing decisions in the Square. "I think the organising committee should be completely independent of these interests and develop a plan of its own that is more in line with the demands of the youth."
The JMP was formed in 2005 by five opposition parties seeking political and economic reform. It threw its weight behind the youth movement early on in the revolution. According to Hamidaddin, Islah is the main party in the coalition. Unlike the opposition youth, the JMP supported the GCC plan. As a result, many within the opposition do not believe the JMP is after their best interests. According to Hamidaddeen, "Their stated goals are the same, except the JMP is more willing to make concessions. Take the GCC initiative, the JMP was for it. Many youth voices were against it. The JMP has its own agenda." According to Hamidaddin, since Saleh's departure, the JMP has been holding meetings with Hadi. "This means they recognise his authority. The only thing JMP is interested in is sharing power in government." Sharafi says that for their part, the youth did not support the GCC initiative because it would not change the regime. "We don't recognise Hadi's rule. We want a transition government established immediately and we want to begin prosecuting all criminals. We don't believe in negotiating with a regime that has blood on its hands." He goes on to say that the organising committee is an arm of the JMP. "JMP is composed of many parties but Islah is the party in control. It's the same with the organising committee."
Al-Qureishi disagrees with the characterisation and insists that party affiliations of individual members do not influence decision making. "We are a diverse group, Islah does not even make up the majority." Hamidaddin however says that although other parties are involved, they are not as organised as Islah and lack financial backing. "Plus they are not given enough space to stand out. Islah itself is not a monolithic group. It is a coalition with different power centers but I think the main trend in them uses democracy as a stepping stone towards power." Hamiddadin accuses their spiritual leader, Sheikh Zindani, of being an extreme opportunist. "The Muslim brotherhood in general is shrewd and opportunistic," In March, Zindani made controversial remarks in a speech during a demonstration. "He called for the reestablishment of the caliphate," according to al-Sharafi. "Many of us were surprised and concerned with his remarks. The youth want a democratic, secular government that respects the rights of its citizens. But this is the sort of dangerous mentality we are dealing with among organisers."
According to Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and expert witness on the country to the US Congress, "Islah and the rest of the official opposition didn't launch the protests - only the youth had the manpower to do that. But the youth are, broadly speaking political novices, and they don't know how best to use the power they have. Islah sees an opportunity to co-opt the movement for its own goals and it is trying to do that. Islah didn't launch these protests but they are trying to ride them as far as they can.
For their part, the youth continue to assert their claims but now find themselves battling opponents on two fronts. Hamidaddin says that fear is guiding the decisions of the JMP and the organising committee and believes that the youth will ultimately be sidelined if they do not organise for the next phase. "The JMP knows the power Saleh's team has. They were hoping his absence would help. But it hasn't. Despite everything, the other party is holding strong. They don't want to escalate matters further. And they are looking for a resolution which takes into considerations the material hard existing balance of power. The youth are not strong enough nor are they able nor want to resort to violence."
Demonstrators are now taking matters into their hands and along with sit-ins against both the regime and their leadership, many of the youth have begun documenting evidence of Islah's maltreatment of demonstrators. Sharafi says that the head of the security committee, Nabil Gerbani, threatened to hand them over to Muhsin's soldiers if they continued to collect evidence of the harassment. "We are not afraid. We will continue to protest both the regime and our leadership. They will not steal this revolution from us. If it comes down to it, we will remain here until the last drop of blood."