x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Islamists exerting increasing control at Yemen protest camp

Eight months into Yemen's uprising, the protest camp at Sanaa's Change Square has grown into a sprawling tent city with a vibrant, if dangerous, life of its own.

Yemenis stroll past tents for anti-goverment protesters this month in what they call Freedom Square in the heart of Sanaa.
Yemenis stroll past tents for anti-goverment protesters this month in what they call Freedom Square in the heart of Sanaa.

SANAA // It offers "revolutionary" falafels in a cafe honouring the Tunisian vegetable seller whose self-immolation triggered the Arab Spring, trinkets bearing the face of Yemeni Nobel peace laureate Tawwakol Karman, a gruesome photo exhibit in the field hospital and classes in everything from political activism to first aid to computers.

Eight months into Yemen's bloody uprising, the protest camp at Sanaa's Change Square has grown into a sprawling tent city with a vibrant, if dangerous, life of its own and is home to 100,000 people - a population that swells to 300,000 on weekends.

With its maze of tents stretching up to six kilometres along some dozen roads through the capital's commercial heart outside the main gate of Sanaa University, the Change Square camp has come to represent the unity and sense of purpose of Yemen's protesters.

The camp has thrown together Yemenis of all political colours, classes and tribes. Living side-by-side in difficult conditions and constantly attacked by forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, they have found ways to settle tribal feuds and other differences to rise above the ethnic, political and geographic fault lines that have existed for years between Yemenis.

The carpeted tents have cinder-block walls to keep out rainwater, some have shade plants inside and out, running water from tanks and regular food supplies from political parties and benevolent businessmen. Power generators provide the tents with electricity, a necessity since city power comes on for only an hour or two every day.

They gather for the five daily prayers at the university's mosque complex, most of which has been turned into a hospital. In the early afternoon, many gather to chew qat, a mildly addictive stimulant, debating the future of their country after Mr Saleh is gone.

Many spend their evenings on the internet's social networks, tweeting about the uprising or posting video and photographs of the day's events.

But hardly a day goes by without violence - the dead and wounded ferried in by ambulances that push through the crowds, sirens wailing, to the field hospital, with calls for blood donations coming from the camp's loudspeakers. The wounded are carried on stretchers or, more often, on blankets held at each corner by their comrades. Men cry at the sight of the fallen and the wounded.

Doctors and nurses, many of them women, work non-stop for hours to treat the wounded, who on particularly violent days can number as many as 300. An estimated 500 protesters have died across the country and 10,000 have been wounded since the uprising against Mr Saleh, who has ruled first North Yemen and then a united Yemen since 1978, began in February.

Snipers target the roads outside the Change Square camp and protesters talk of the abduction of prominent activists who leave the square to see their families or run errands.

In the turbulent south, two Yemeni soldiers were shot dead yesterday and three suspected Islamist militants were killed the night before in two sets of clashes in Aden, security and tribal sources said.

The increasingly violent nature of the uprising has led many to question the wisdom of accepting the protection of army units that defected to the opposition, as well as of the armed tribesmen whose chiefs also abandoned Mr Saleh.

The United Nations Security Council has called on Mr Saleh to stand down in return for immunity from prosecution. Mr Saleh yesterday welcomed the resolution but failed to say if he will comply, the state Saba news agency reported. He has called for talks with the opposition,

Many protesters want to restore the peaceful nature of their campaign by doing away with the protection of the renegade soldiers and tribesmen, fearing that their presence in their midst has triggered excessive force from Mr Saleh's security forces. They are also concerned by the leading role taken in the opposition movement by parties once allied to Mr Saleh.

Of particular concern is the Islamist Islah party, modelled on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which some fear is hijacking the protest movement. They say Islah supporters dominate the movement's organising committee which plans and runs demonstrations, often seeking to raise tension or provoke Mr Saleh's forces, something that leads to the use of deadly force.

Islah, the largest and best organised party in Yemen, includes an extremist faction whose members seek to enforce a strict interpretation of Sharia on the square, segregating the protesters on the basis of gender.

"We ask you to be so kind as to not allow men and women to work alongside each other unless it is absolutely necessary to do so," wrote one Jomaani Al Herasy in the guest book of the field hospital.

The Islah party also is known to be bankrolling most services provided inside the Change Square camp, squeezing out donors who offer support without any political strings attached.

Critics fear Islah, the main opposition party in one of the poorest country in the Middle East, wants to use the reform movement to topple Mr Saleh and replace his regime with an Islamist state, restricting the rights of women and minorities.

"All I want is to see Sharia laws fully implemented in Yemen," said Magdy Mohammed, a 35-year-old pharmacist and father of five wearing the hallmark long beard of a Salafi.

"Women must not participate in the protests. Her place is her home," said Mr Mohammed, an Islah supporter who claims that his business has fallen by some 70 per cent since the protest movement began. His pharmacy is on one of the streets were protesters' tents have sprung up.