The youth activists who spearheaded the uprising that ended President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule are now grappling with internal divisions, as politics and competing visions weaken one of the Arab world’s most dynamic revolts of the past year.
In Change Square, the nexus of the revolution, protesters have splintered into politically aligned groups, each determined to hold sway over the sprawling tented encampment near Sanaa University. The demonstrations have grown smaller as opposition parties take control, and clashes have erupted over who controls the microphones and the stage.
Independent activist leaders say they were manipulated by the opposition parties, which agreed to a deal with the government last year and are now sharing power with Saleh’s ruling party. Although Saleh has formally stepped down, he appears determined to remain influential through his powerful relatives and allies.
The activists say that they won’t leave Change Square until the remnants of Saleh’s regime are gone and that they will press the new unity government to enact far-reaching reform. But a sense of frustration fills their discussions.
“This revolution has been stabbed in the back,” said Khaled al-Anesi, a lawyer and one of the core leaders of the revolt.
Across the Middle East and North Africa, young activists are struggling to find a role in post-dictatorship societies as they continue pushing for their vision of a better future. They face well-organized opposition movements or armed militias that now wield much greater influence.
In Yemen, many of the young protesters say they have been left out, their voices silenced. Instead, an older generation of opposition leaders, their credibility tainted by previous ties to Saleh’s government, will have the greatest say in shaping a new Yemen.
The revolution could gain momentum again, especially if the new government fails to meet its promises or if Saleh meddles in the country’s affairs. But for now, youth leaders acknowledge that the current environment is partly their own doing. They have not been able to unify, allowing political parties to influence the direction of the uprising.
“They pulled the revolution in different directions,” said Maizar al-Junaid, 32, a Sanaa University graduate seated inside a large tent in Change Square near posters of Che Guevara. “Every side is trying to attract the youth to achieve its own goals, and this has led to divisions and fear for the future.”
A year ago, Change Square was buzzing with unity. Protests that began with a small group of youth activists, including one of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, Tawakkol Karman, blossomed into a revolution. Political parties sent their supporters to the square, multiplying the size of the demonstrations and the pressure on Saleh.
By last summer, the square was a remarkable sight as rival tribesmen and political foes pitched their tents side by side. They had one goal: Saleh’s removal.
Despite their different political affiliations, most of the youth activists held the same views. They were against a U.S.-backed power-transfer deal, crafted by Yemen’s Persian Gulf neighbors, that gave Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution for allegedly killing protesters. And they opposed allowing Saleh to turn over power to his hand-picked successor, Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is also a former defense minister.
But after Saleh signed the deal in November, the traditional political opposition ordered its young supporters to stop demonstrating, which significantly reduced the size and influence of the protests.
“We feel the demonstrations are empty from the inside,” said Fouad Shujaa Al Deen, 34, an independent activist. “There are no real goals anymore, no real meaning to them.”
By some estimates, more than half the youth in Change Square are affiliated with Islah, the nation’s wealthiest and most influential opposition party. Today, Islah youth dominate many of the committees in the square.
“Whoever possesses media and the tools of power, even the food, controls the whole square,” Deen said.
“Islah,” he added, “is the biggest power in the square.”
As part of the governmental power-sharing deal, Hadi ran uncontested in a presidential election this month and was sworn in Saturday, formally ending Saleh’s rule. Islah youth in the square actively campaigned in favor of the vote, deepening the rift with other young activists.
“We went out calling for a civil state. We came out against military rule,” Anesi said. “Now, a military man is being forced upon us and given legitimacy through the ballot box. This is an assassination of democracy.”
Mohammed al-Saadi, Islah’s deputy leader, acknowledged that the party uses young people to advance its political goals. “The Islah youth in the square get orders from the party,” he said.
With Saleh’s rule over, Yemen’s political conflicts have emerged in Change Square.
When clashes erupted between Shiite Houthi rebels and ultra-conservative Sunni Salafists in Al Jawf province and other northern areas late last year, tensions grew between the Houthi and Islah youths in the square. The Salafists are widely believed to be aligned with Islah.
In interviews, Shiite Houthi youth leaders in the square said Islah youth had denied them medical treatment at the makeshift clinic, targeted them with religious hate speech and distributed pamphlets that called them “the enemies of the revolution.”
In January, the factions clashed over who should control the outdoor stage.
“When we joined the square, we joined with open hearts, for all of us to be united under the same goals,” said Ali Al Saqaf, 30, a Houthi activist. “But the continued attacks on us show that we don’t have true partners in the revolution.”
Habil al-Ariki, 40, an Islah leader in Change Square, denied the allegations and accused the Houthis of trying to damage his party’s image. But he played down the divisions in the square, saying that “the regime could take advantage” of them.
“We are capable of moving forward and past them,” he said.