Among the Thugs of Yemen

What motivates the pro-government supporters attacking protesters?


SANA'A, Yemen -- The thugs conferred among themselves, decided I was not a spy, and invited me into their circus tent, where they've made their home on Sana'a's Tahrir Square for the past eleven days.

"Sit down, sit down please," their leader told me, hitching up his long white robe and readjusting his jambiya, the 10-inch-long dagger Yemeni men traditionally wear around their waists. He and his co-thugs beamed broadly at me. "Welcome, welcome!" they said.

In the lexicon of the protests that have wracked Yemen's capital for the past eleven days, these guys -- the supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- are known as the baltagiyah, the thugs. They're the guys who show up at the anti-Saleh protests with sharpened sticks, lengths of chain, knives, and, more recently, Kalashnikovs. They're the guys who have been making unarmed protesters bleed.

The general consensus around the anti-Saleh camp is that the baltagiyah are either tribal members, trucked in at the expense of the government, or security forces in civilian clothes. The truth, I discovered, is that they're a little of both -- but it's much more complicated than that.

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 approvingly.

"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 flag.

"Look," he said, beaming that green-toothed smile. "I decorated it myself."

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty