x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Vanguard in Yemen protests stands firm in tent city, ready to die

What began as a gathering of 15 students and activists has grown into a nationwide demand for decent wages, law and order, and respect, as pioneer insists 'thugs and live fire will not repress us.'

Zakaria Abdullah al Selwi, one of the 15 people credited with igniting the protests in Sanaa, speaks to demonstrators on Sunday.
Zakaria Abdullah al Selwi, one of the 15 people credited with igniting the protests in Sanaa, speaks to demonstrators on Sunday.

SANAA // Zakaria Abdullah al Selwi remembers when he was just one of 15 students and activists to stand in front of the university, demanding the resignation of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"We used to come every day and shout against poverty, unemployment and corruption," he recalled while walking past the tent village near Sanaa University's main gate. "We were beat up and harassed by the thugs of the ruling party and police in plainclothes." Those were the first days of the rebellion.

About three weeks later, pro-democracy protesters had taken control of the site at the university gate and erected their tents. Today, there are more than 5,000 people at the site, including students, tribesmen, the jobless and the employed. It has become a gathering place for a cross section of Yemen's population: men and women, some dressed in traditional Yemeni clothing and others wearing western jeans and T-shirts, as well as people of different backgrounds and ideologies.

"I was scared at the beginning, and my brother, who is in the army, advised me to stay away from protests, said Mr al Selwi, 23, who is studying English and literature at the university. "Other students used to laugh at us. It was a mixed feeling of desire to revolt and frustration. Our number is now big. I feel now there is a real revolution in the making."

Mr Saleh's supporters, wielding batons, daggers and others weapons, have clashed with pro-democracy protesters several times since the beginning of the protests. One person has been killed and dozens injured in the Sanaa demonstrations. Tens of thousands more have protested against the government in other regions of the country.

But the violence doesn't deter Mr al Selwi.

"The use of thugs and live fire will not repress us," said Mr al Selwi, who is from a poor farming family in Taz province and has to work as a private security guard to support himself. "I swear we will march to the presidential palace. I have brought my coffin here with me, and I am ready to die for the people's freedom from this corrupt and repressive regime."

He said that the protesters had "broken the wall of fears" in their battle to oust Mr Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years.

Public criticism of the president has long been taboo in the country. Now, protesters are heard shouting, "He should leave with his relatives and return our money they looted". They carry posters that read "The leader of thugs must leave" and "We need an educated leader". They have also stuck an effigy of the president on an electricity pole.

Abdulghani al Iryani, an independent political analyst in Yemen, said the rebellion begun by Mr al Selwi and his colleagues is irreversible.

"I am convinced that the youth revolution has [gone] past the tipping point," he said. He claims that it has "already succeeded in transforming the political landscape to the extent that we could say the old Saleh regime can't continue as it was."

Earlier this month, in response to the unrest, the president offered a package of reforms, promised to step down when his term ends in 2013, and said that he would not transfer power to his son. However, his concessions have not quelled the protesters.

"No matter how bad things turn, we will never emerge out of this situation with the concentration and personalisation of power that existed before the youths took to the streets. If they stop and go home, the regime will backtrack," Mr al Iryani said.

Mr al Selwi lives with either his brother or a nephew in Sanaa.

"For the last nine days, I have been sleeping here at the site of the sit-in," he said. "I wash my clothes at nearby public toilets. Sometimes, I sleep for two or three hours."

Mr al Selwi said he learnt from the protest that the regime was "the source of all woes" of the country.

"I have learnt a lot from being here with people from all community groups; I have learnt that the regime is behind all cracks in the society, behind the secessionist sentiment and feudal wars between tribes. These conspiracies and divisions exist only in the head of the regime. I do live and eat here with tribesmen and people from the south and every part of the country. We all share the same love of the country and desire for freedom and peace," Mr al Selwi said.

"Our objective is that this regime should quit so as to have a democratic state where all people are equal; a state of law and order. We want jobs and a good health and education system," he said as he showed a photo of his niece, Hadeel Nashwan, who died two years ago at the age of 12 because her father could not afford to pay for medical treatments for her paralysis.

"We want to live decently. We have oil, gas and several other resources, but we are living in extreme poverty," he said as he wrapped the Yemeni flag round his neck.