Despite Violence, Yemen's Protesters Press On

The demonstrators in Sana'a, weathering an increasingly violent crackdown, call for the president's resignation

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SANA'A, Yemen -- About an hour into Saturday's anti-government demonstrations in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, the metallic pop-pa-pop-pop of Kalashnikov fire rang out, someone screamed, and a Yemeni woman thrust her child into my arms.

"Hold her," she said in Arabic, grabbing two sacks of fruit off the ground with her freed hands and pushing the three of us into a makeshift bunker between a shuttered storefront, a kiosk, and a wheelbarrow full of pistachios and peanuts. Outside, we could see the assembled crowd shattering into columns of terrified people, bent at right angles from the street, running for cover.

"Her name is Ismaila," the mother whispered, when we were settled. She smiled beneath her niqab. A few seconds later, three panting students pushed into our shelter, their faces taut with fear and excitement.

This was the ninth consecutive day of protests in Sana'a, as well as other cities around Yemen. Every day, the formula has been more or less the same: a band of scrappy students, journalists, and activists, sometimes more than a thousand strong, show up at a predetermined location, where they shout and chant and cheer until they are beaten by mobs of pro-government men wielding sharpened sticks, chains, and hunks of cement.

Saturday's twist -- government supporters firing Kalashnikovs into the crowd -- was new, but it was also merely a variation on a tired theme.

I asked the panting young protesters the question that every Yemeni and every Yemen-watcher wants to know the answer to: Do you have a plan?

"There is no plan," said Adel Omar, an engineering student at Sana'a University, who wrote his name in my notebook with a trembling hand. "Everyday, we are beaten, slaughtered like dogs. But everyday after, we will show up and say, 'Ali must leave,'" he said, referencing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. "We will do it everyday until he is gone. That's the only plan."

Saleh has ruled Yemen for thirty-two years. His photograph -- mustachioed, grimacing regally -- is plastered on storefronts, on restaurant walls, and on the dashboards of taxis across Yemen. He is known as Uncle Ali: corrupt, uneducated, ruthless, and yet, effective.

The anti-government protesters' apparent lack of any formal plan is terrifying to both Saleh, who has scrambled to appease the protesters with promises of reform, and to many regular Yemenis, who, while moved by the triumph of the Egyptian people, fear that Yemen will prove different. They are afraid that if Saleh -- a strongman whose nepotism and political savvy are credited with keeping this volatile nation together -- loses power, Yemen will crumble. Many people remember the horrors of civil wars in Yemen in the 1960s and again in the 1990s and aren't eager for a reprise.

Earlier this week, I spoke to a young man, Ahmed Rahmen al-Hamami, who was watching an anti-government protest from a teashop. I asked him why he was not joining in. "I do not think this is the best interest of the nation," he sighed. "We need reforms, but what will happen if Saleh is gone? Do these people know what they will do? No. They don't. Without him, there is no stability. No security. Everything will be chaos. Many people will die."

Another young man, Mohammed Alwadi, agreed. "It is not good for Yemen," he said. "But it's better than Somalia."

Western journalists who live in Sana'a often refer to the security threats plaguing Yemen as "the triumvirate": a violent separatist movement in the south; an on-again, off-again war with rebels in the north; and an increasingly active chapter of al-Qaeda in the east. And there are other problems. Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world, unemployment rates here hover around 35 percent, and the government's main revenue source, oil, is expected to dry up in the next eight years or so. Drinkable water is not expected to last much longer.

It's a recipe for disaster, with or without a revolution.

But the anti-government protesters -- the quivering mother and college students in that makeshift cave with me today; the four young men still out in the street who, we later found out, were shot and critically wounded -- aren't buying these grim forecasts.

"The Egyptians didn't have a plan either," said Yahya Rahmen Abdul, one of my cave-mates, leaning his head against the kiosk wall. "We don't have all the answers now, but the Egyptians didn't have answers either. They are forming their government now. We will do the same. First, Ali must go."

Nasser al-Dahmar, whose English was not as good as that of his friends, nodded enthusiastically. "Yes! Yes!" he said. "Ali must go!" Crammed elbow to elbow in our shelter, we all laughed at al-Dahmar's excited and heavily accent English.

The young mother, who had been sitting quietly on the floor with her child in her lap, said something in Arabic I couldn't understand. I leaned in closer but still couldn't understand. Adel Omar translated.
 
"She said, 'We do have a plan,'" he explained. "She said, 'The plan is to make a future for Ismaila.'"

Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty
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Haley Sweetland Edwards is a journalist who covers Central Asia and the Middle East and currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia. She recently lived in Yemen on a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant.

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