The head of the crew I'd met, who wore a camouflage jacket over his
long white robe, introduced himself as "Sami Mohammed Amrani, loyal
soldier in the Army of the Republic of Yemen, commanded by General Ali
Abdullah Saleh." He grinned, his teeth coated in a green sheen of
powdery qat, a mildly narcotic plant that many Yemenis chew
daily. He peered at my notebook. Had I gotten it right? I had. He nodded
"We are here to protect the nation of Yemen from destruction and
chaos," he said, opening the floor to his fellow tribesmen, who all
began speaking at once, declaring their unconditional loyalty to Saleh,
"with our blood and with our souls."
The scene inside the tent, provided by the government, was grim.
Sticks and batons were scattered around the sitting area. Just outside
the tent, a 12-year-old boy was passing out more sticks, thick as
baseball bats, to anyone who wanted them, free of charge. Food, water
and qat have also been provided, they tell me, handing me a bottle of
water, "courtesy of Ali."
This is how politics are often done in Yemen. Saleh, who has managed
to hang onto power for 32 years, is well versed in the art of palm
greasing, especially among Yemen's historically fickle tribes, which
tend to stick with he who delivers the most savory rewards.
One can easily imagine people showing up, holding sandwich boards
with pro-government messages, and sleeping in a tent for a few bucks a
day, but the baltagiyah I met did not behave like mercenaries. They
seemed to sincerely want Saleh to win. One was whittling his bat into a
sharpened point in order to make a more effective weapon. Another had
sustained injuries to his nose, hand and foot, and told me he was going
out to fight again tonight. These unprompted acts of aggression appeared
prompted by passion, not money.
An hour earlier, when I'd first walked into Tahrir Square, one of
the sheikhs of the Beni Hashaysh tribe, Sheikh Ali Towaf, had stopped me
to show me his tent. Like all the others, it was filled with about 50
men, each packing qat leaves into wads the size of baseballs in their
cheeks and fingering the sticks by their side. Outside, the tent was
decorated with a series of banners: one with the name of the tribe, one
declaring the greatness of Saleh, and one of Saleh's face.
I'd asked Towaf the same questions I'd asked every other baltagiyah I
met -- why do you like Saleh? Why do you think he's a good leader? --
but something about the way he answered, the perplexed cock of his head,
suddenly made me understand. This wasn't about liking Saleh. This
wasn't about thinking he was good leader. This is about placing a bet
on who's going to win the ongoing power struggle for Yemen. Saleh is
their favored horse.
Towaf and others like him are willing to wager that Saleh -- who has
retained control for more than three tumultuous decades, through civil
wars and separatist movements and al-Qaeda attacks and mass poverty and
drought -- is going to win against a few thousand unarmed protesters
toting homemade signs. They're willing to help him in any way they can,
and if he does, they'll be rewarded handsomely.
After a few minutes in the tent with Sami Mohammed Amrani, we ran
out of things to talk about. To break the silence, the thug next to me
pulled out his two-foot metal police baton, which was covered in
stickers of Saleh's face and the red, black and white of the Yemeni
"Look," he said, beaming that green-toothed smile. "I decorated it myself."