In Yemen, revolution continues in Change Square six months after Saleh’s fall
SANAA, Yemen — The tents are still in Change Square. So is the large billboard declaring “Get Out.” Portraits of young activists killed in protests still grace the walls, an inspiration to many here who say their job is unfinished.
“We didn’t come here to fight against one person,” said Ibrahim al-Khatab, 20, a student who has lived in his tent for nearly 17 months. “The goals of the revolution have not all been achieved.”
It’s been six months since a populist revolt ended President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. But here in Change Square — the nexus of the uprising, where tens of thousands once gathered — the revolution continues, in a different shape and form. Some tents are empty. Others have vanished as the crowds have thinned. The protests are smaller; less boisterous. The activists are divided.
“We want to fight the corruption,” declared Isham Abdu Saleh, 33, a laborer.
“The government has stopped my pension,” said Abdullah al-Shwaibi, 44, a retired soldier. “We have no rights.”
“The Houthis and the Hirak are excluded from the government,” said Walid al-Qudami, 22, referring to a northern rebel movement and southern secessionists, respectively. “We want this to change.”
Still, the activists at Change Square expressed a shared core goal: to oust Saleh’s relatives and loyalists of his regime, who continue to wield clout in the government and military.
In particular, they say, Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali, who commands the nation’s elite Republican Guard soldiers, must be reined in. This week, some of his forces clashed with government troops at the Defense Ministry after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi ordered the transfer of some units that had been under Ahmed Ali’s command.
The former president has remained in Sanaa, casting his shadow across a large swath of society. He has no shortage of supporters. His party, now a part of a coalition government, has its own television station, which helps Saleh remain visible and burnish his legacy. He continues to meet with influential Yemenis and Arabs.
“Until now, Abed Rabbo Mansour has not even been able to enter the presidential palace,” said Ibrahim al-Dhamari, 24 and unemployed. “As long as Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family remain in Yemen, there will be no stability.”
The demonstrations in the square began to take shape in February 2011, a few weeks after a small group of youth activists led by Tawakkol Karman, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, took to the streets, inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. By that summer, tens of thousands of Yemenis were camped out in the streets.
Today, those who remain have created a sense of permanence. Many of the tents have been replaced by small brick structures that have carpets, pillows and mattresses. In the evenings, activists watch television programs beamed in through satellite dishes. A thriving market buzzes day and night in the square, offering everything from hot samosas and cold juices to shoes and clothes.
Like other activists in the square, Dhamari said the United States should use its diplomatic and economic muscle to stop Saleh and his relatives from meddling in the new Yemen.
“We, the youth of the revolution, request Obama to take strong actions against those trying to sabotage the transition,” Dhamari said.
In other nooks of the square, divisions are visible. Activists linked with the Houthis no longer join in demonstrations with activists of Islah, a powerful Islamist party that is now part of the coalition government.
“We don’t share the same demands anymore,” Qudami said.
For street vendor Mudhafar Ahmed Nonan, 65, who sells dates, peanuts and other snacks in the square, the main reason why Yemen's revolution is far from complete is this: Last year, he earned $90 a month. Now, he makes $35. People are poorer now, he said. And that's enough reason for Change Square and its activists to remain a fixture in the capital.
“We want the country to be fixed,” said Nonan, standing behind his rickety wooden cart.