Sunday, June 19, 2011

Change Square: The heart of Yemen's creative revolution

Sana'a, June 19, 2011- For the past four months, a square in Yemen's capital Sanaa has been transformed into a sea of tents, flags and banners.

Protesters who oppose the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh have gathered outside Sanaa University in an area they have dubbed Change Square.

There they sleep, eat, chat and chant together, all the while peacefully calling for the end of a regime they view as corrupt and oppressive.

And the site has become a centre for artistic and creative expression on a scale rarely seen before the uprising.

Art for the people

Fadi Alharby is a painter who, like many other artists in Yemen, worked in isolation under the strict regime.

He has come here to find other like-minded creatives and to take part in a revolutionary movement inspired in part by freedom of expression.

"Many people think the revolution in Yemen is based on violence," he says, "but for me it is based on art, because art is a human right, it is freedom."

The uprising has in fact been marred by violence. After months of largely peaceful protest, the country was pushed to the brink of civil war in late May, when fighting erupted between government forces and tribal leaders, reducing parts of Sanaa to ruin and killing hundreds of people.

But this is in sharp contrast to the peaceful scenes at Change Square, where art helps to bring people together.

"Art has really taken a central role in the square, especially since the revolution has taken over three months", says activist Atiaf Alwazir, who has become a voice of the revolution through her English-language blog, Woman from Yemen.

"The people need entertainment, people need motivation and that is what the art is giving to them. It's inspiring them to stay, to do more," she told the BBC World Service's The Strand programme.

Whereas in the past, art exhibits were rare, the few that were held only attracted affluent Yemenis or foreigners. Now artists of all types have come forward to exhibit their work on the street.

'Enough injustice'

The tented community has become a centre not just for drawing and painting, but for music, dance and theatre too.

One group of youth toured the campsite to interview protesters about their experiences in the square and their feelings on the problems facing Yemen.

They then wrote a play - called Enough Injustice - and performed it inside a tent packed full of people. It was an instant hit, and they have been asked to repeat the performance again and again.

In a daring move, one young actor imitates the voice of the president - the significance of which is not lost on Alwazir.

"Normally this is a very red line," she says, "but in the square he felt safe to do that."

The movement at Change Square is not the only gathering of people in the city.

While the protesters there set off fireworks and danced to celebrate the departure of the president to Saudi Arabia - where he went to seek medical treatment after being wounded in attack on his compound - his supporters also staged a rally, calling for his return.

Which movement will win in the end is hard to determine, but Alwazir has no doubt that the tide of freedom flowing through Change Square will be difficult to reverse.

"There is no comparison between before the revolution and now," she says.

"People feel empowered."

Source: BBC

Yemen’s Unfinished Revolution


June 18, 2011

Sana, Yemen

AFTER more than five months of continuous protests, I stand today in Change Square with thousands of young people united by a lofty dream. I have spent days and nights camped out in tents with fellow protesters; I have led demonstrations in the streets facing the threat of mortars, missiles and gunfire; I have struggled to build a movement for democratic change — all while caring for my three young children.

We have reached this historic moment because we chose to march in the streets demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an end to his corrupt and failed regime and the establishment of a modern democratic state. On June 4, our wish for Mr. Saleh’s departure was granted, but our demand for democracy remains unfulfilled.

Following months of peaceful protests that reached every village, neighborhood and street, Yemen is now facing a complete vacuum of authority; we are without a president or parliament. Mr. Saleh may be gone, but authority has not yet been transferred to a transitional presidential council endorsed by the people.

This is because the United States and Saudi Arabia, which have the power to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy in Yemen, have instead used their influence to ensure that members of the old regime remain in power and the status quo is maintained. American counterterrorism agencies and the Saudi government have a firm grip on Yemen at the moment. It is they, not the Yemeni people and their constitutional institutions, that control the country.

American intervention in Yemen is a product of the war on terror. In exchange for military and intelligence partnerships established after the bombing of the American destroyer Cole in 2000, the United States provided the Saleh regime with increased economic aid and military assistance. Because American security was given priority over all other concerns, counterterrorism agencies paid no attention to the human rights abuses being committed by their local partners.

Indeed, American officials chose as local partners the Central Security Forces, the National Security Agency and the Republican Guard, all of which are controlled by Mr. Saleh’s sons and nephews. As a result of their partnership with United States counterterrorism agencies, these organizations received generous American financing as well as guidance and technical assistance.

Because America has invested so heavily in Yemen’s security forces, it now seems that a transition to democracy will depend on whether Washington believes that investment will remain secure. The establishment of a new government will therefore be contingent on American officials’ approving the country’s new leaders. Sadly, it seems likely that the United States will support figures from the old regime rather than allow a transitional government approved by the people to take control of Yemen. This would be a grave mistake.

American policy makers must understand that the activists and young people who started Yemen’s peaceful revolution deeply respect the United States and Western civilization. Indeed, it was in Washington and other capitals throughout the free world that many of these activists learned the peaceful methods they employed during our revolution.

We call on American officials to engage with the leaders of Yemen’s democracy movement and abandon their misplaced investment in the old regime’s security apparatus, which has killed more innocent women and children than terrorists.

We understand America’s concerns about terrorism and recognize your right to attack terrorist sanctuaries. We have no objection to agreements that protect your security interests. We only ask that you respect international standards on human rights and the Yemeni people’s rights to freedom and justice.

On behalf of many of the young people involved in Yemen’s revolution, I assure the American people that we are ready to engage in a true partnership. Together, we can eliminate the causes of extremism and the culture of terrorism by bolstering civil society and encouraging development and stability.

We also call upon our Saudi neighbors to let us pursue a democratic path. For 50 years, the Saudi government has provided a special committee of its ministers with an enormous annual budget to intervene in Yemeni affairs. Over the years, this committee has consistently meddled in Yemen’s domestic politics and exerted considerable influence over the country’s development. In many cases, Yemeni tribal leaders and other prominent individuals have received far more generous aid payments from Riyadh than from the Yemeni government.

Saudi interference in Yemen is also motivated by a fear that the Arab Spring, which spread from Tunis and Cairo to Sana, might soon reach Riyadh. But the fear that our revolution will cross the border is unfounded. This is an information age revolution; it spreads through Facebook, Twitter and other social media, which are not subject to political boundaries.

We ask our neighbors in Saudi Arabia to stop hindering the rule of law and healthy economic development through the purchase of politicians and tribal leaders. We also call on the Saudi government to stop pursuing policies that undermine the people’s desire for democratic change. Saudi initiatives that aim to remove the president while keeping the old regime and its security apparatus intact risk unleashing a civil war, which would no doubt have dire consequences for Saudi Arabia as well as for Yemen.

The young people of this revolution have made their demands clear: authority must be handed over to a transitional presidential council approved by the people. This council will manage the country until a constitutional referendum and elections can be held. And the government’s security forces must never again be used to serve the personal agendas of government officials or to establish a monopoly on power.

Yemen’s people have charted the course of revolution and we will follow this course to its end. We have left our authoritarian past behind. Now, we ask our friends in Washington and Riyadh to help us build a democratic future.

Tawakkol Karman, a leader of Yemen’s democratic youth movement, is the founder of Women Journalists Without Chains. This article was translated by Garrett Davidson from the Arabic.

Source: the New York Times