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Yemen Wrestles with Revolution

By: 
Safa Ahmad
Date Published: 
October 2, 2011

Editor’s Note: What follows is an account of the unfolding Yemeni revolution by Safa Ahmed, a Middle East based journalist who travelled to Yemen in June and July of 2011. At the time, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh barely survived an assassination attempt and fled to Saudi Arabia for treatment. On September 23, Saleh managed to return to the capitol San’a. The United States and the Saudi governments immediately criticized his return, yet, clearly, he would not have been able to return without their consent. Within only a few days of his return, more than 100 Yemenis, mostly democracy protestors, were dead. On September 30, just one week after his return, a US drone attack targeted and killed two Al Qaeda operatives, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, in the first extrajudicial killing of American citizens accused of terrorism.

Nervous soldiers in disheveled uniforms man checkpoints going into the city. Wilting in the midday sun, looking destitute, they wave us through.

Taiz was considered a bastion of peace in Yemen, known for an educated, progressive and unarmed population who, unlike most of the country, has long shunned tribal life. On February 11 it acquired the additional honor of becoming the birthplace of the Yemeni revolution.

But even this bastion of peace has been engulfed by the violence spreading in Yemen. Armed men roam the city. On a public minivan to Freedom Square an armed man hops in after me. Everyone freezes, unsure how to react. The young man next to him muffles a scream. The armed man calmly sits close to the open door, pays a few minutes later and hops off. An unthinkable scene a few months ago is now the norm.

Taiz is a city under siege by its own army. It has been invaded by a kaleidoscope of armed men: the Yemeni Army and other security forces, plain-clothed soldiers fearing retribution, mercenaries headed by Jaber Al Mahdi—a member of the ruling party in Taiz—tribal men brought in from other parts of the country, and opportunistic thieves with no political agenda. Most of these armed men fall under the command of the notoriously brutal military commander known by one name: Qiran. 

After May 29 a new armed group entered the equation: the Freedom Hawks—tribal leaders and youth to 'protect' the revolution.

Freedom Square

A burnt car flipped on its side and rocks mark one of the entry points into the square. A few tents are still pitched on the sides of the long stretch of road with residential buildings, shops, burnt trees and what used to be the Al Safwa hospital, its door padlocked. The area used to be the vibrant hub of the nonviolent revolution with hundreds of thousands if not millions gathering to demand the fall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime. What used to be known as Sagher Station was christened Freedom Square. They were the first; the rest of the country followed.

“It breaks my heart to come back here,” said Yasmin Al Sabri, a 30 year-old lawyer, as she looked out at what little remains of the tents, protesters and their nonviolent revolution. Wearing a black Abaya and purple scarf perfectly framing her soft face she reflected on what happened: “I wish the fire could have burnt the differences between us.” 

Yasmin is referring to a pivotal day in the revolution’s history, marking the end to a truly nonviolent movement. On May 29 the army and its cohorts executed a slow and calculated attack on Freedom square, literally setting it on fire and massacring the protesters.

“It was a nightmare. We could not believe what was happening,” said Yasmin in bewilderment. She was forced to flee the square to an apartment close by. From the window, she witnessed the killing and pillaging unfold.

The day started with the arrest of one of the protesters in the morning. By the afternoon, the governorate building a few miles away from Freedom Square had to call for military backup, and snipers in civilian clothing standing on the roof of the building began shooting at the protesters point blank.

A decision had been made to invade the square. Mutlaq Al Akhali, the head of the Socialists Youth Union in Taiz and a friend of Yasmin, was there as well. He was close to the governorate at the time when they started shooting people down. Seven of his friends were wounded and one killed, shot dead next to him.

By 7pm the Central Security, Republican Guard and the 33 Brigade, who had previously alleged they were with the protesters, had amassed their troops surrounding the square from all entrances. The protesters were still in denial that there would be a full out invasion. The governor, Hamoud Al Soufi, had fled the country to Saudi Arabia, and the military commander Abdullah Qiran was left as the sole decision maker in the city.

Getting worse

The situation was getting worse by the hour. Some of the protesters found an overzealous soldier standing on his own shooting. They kidnapped him. When and how is still a point of contention, but Mutlaq alleges he was called by the men who were holding the soldier hostage around 8pm. “They had beaten him up badly. Will never forget his face all bruised, his eyes swollen shut. It was an unacceptable act. But our friends were being shot at, and tensions were high,” he said defensively, aware that some were saying that the kidnapping was what caused the army to invade. 

A negotiation frenzy ensued between the army and politicians who could influence the youth. “We gave him civilian clothing and put him in Safwa hospital for his own safety. But I couldn't convince them to release him. They asked me why a soldier should be more important than all the people getting shot at in the street? Are we not Yemeni they asked?” He started to speak slower, thinking more carefully how to put the following events into words.

A delegation from the opposition political parties came to the hospital to retrieve the soldier, but the youth created a human chain around the entrance and blocked them. More soldiers were pouring in from the airport and the shooting intensified. The youth were on their knees with their hands in the air in peace signs. Others lay on the ground at the entrance close to Safwa hospital to stop the advance of the army.

The microphones were blasting calls for people to hold their ground. The square went down in numbers from fifteen thousand to a thousand in a matter of hours.

Two prominent tribal leaders, Hamoud Al Mikhlafi and Sultan Al Samii offered to defend the square with armed men. The youth refused. To the end, they tried to remain nonviolent.

The burning and looting lasted until the early hours. Electricity and phones were cut off in most parts of the city, hindering the spread of news.

The mosques picked up the plea for help and started echoing it from their minarets across the city as the flames lapped the hundreds of tents in the square.

Al Safwa hospital was cleaned out of patients and equipment. What the soldiers couldn't carry with them, they destroyed. The patients were either arrested or evicted.

While standing in front of the white, chained doors of Al Safwa hospital, a man came up to Mutlaq to inquire about one of the dead. “My brother is one of those killed. I saw his picture posted in the newspaper. Where can I find him?” he asked. Local newspapers have been publishing pictures of unidentified bodies still in the hospital morgue hoping someone would come claim them. The man was from Ma'rib, a city north of Taiz. “You will find him in Al Rawda hospital, but please bring your ID,” Mutlaq told him.

“At dawn, people started peeping their heads out, like ghosts. Slowly getting up from a collective nightmare,” said Yasmin. Traumatized, she couldn’t bring herself to return to the square for several days.

Months after the attack, people in Taiz are still trying to piece their lives back together. The rejected offer of armed protection made by the two tribal leaders Hamoud Al Mikhlafi and Sultan Al Samii on the night of the invasion was finally accepted. “Our revolution is peaceful, protected with weapons,” became the new slogan of the revolution.

Targeting hospitals

Al Rawdah hospital is less than five minutes ride from the square. Four armed men sit languidly on metal chairs at the entrance with their guns strapped on their shoulders, eyeing everyone who walks up the steps. The Qura'n plays on loudspeakers. The scent of detergent and humans mingle in the crowded pistachio-green hallways. “Who signs death certificates?” asks a man anxiously, clutching a handful of papers. “Go to Dr. Sadiq he can help you,” said doctor Hamoud Aqlan, the coordinator for the field hospital in Taiz. 

Dr. Hamoud looks haggard, his full, round face sagging a little, but he’s anxious to talk. “We are overrun with patients because they are afraid to go to government hospitals. We had two deaths last night and ten injured,” he said as he rushed out to help another patient shuffling down the hall on a broken leg. 

For months the security forces have been going into hospitals and arresting people. They even took up camp in Al Thawra hospital with tanks. Soldiers took advantage of its location perched on top of a hill overlooking the revolution's Freedom Square. The previous night they had fired upon a passerby on a motorcycle with a mortar, killing him instantly and injuring a bystander.

The hospital receives many of the dead and injured from the daily army attacks on the protesters. This has made the hospital a target. ”We have been under attack for the past five days. Last week they attacked Ibn Sinna hospital,”' Dr. Hamoud said, holding a spreadsheet of all the killed and injured he meticulously updates.

He hurriedly flipped through the list and read: “Sulaiman Ibn Al Hyoun, a 14 year-old boy shot in the head on the 22 of June as the bus he was in drove away from a checkpoint. They shot him from behind after he cleared the checkpoint. When the people questioned the soldier as to why he shot the boy, he answered sarcastically: ‘Add him to the list of martyrs.’”

Sudden shouting outside the hospital made the doctor stop and head to the window. A trickle of people slowly turned to hundreds in front of the hospital gates. All stood silently with their hands up in the air in peace signs, a salute, from the revolutionaries to the hospital staff. In a swell of emotion people started whistling and clapping while holding up posters of killed loved ones and Che Guevara. The staff gathered around windows and doors smiling proudly.

At the edge of the march, armed men were piled up in the back of a pick-up truck and spilling over to the sidewalk. As the protesters continued their march, the armed men followed. Gunshots cracked the air, I flinched, but no one seemed worried. Gunshots are a non-event these days. “Every night between 9 and 11 pm, I gather my children and sit in the stairwell to protect them from the gunfire. They are like clock work, exactly on time, everyday,” said Dr. Hamoud with resignation.

Counterrevolution

Boxes and empty file cabinets litter the second floor offices of Yasmin's law firm. It was as barren as the square. Yasmin had opened one of the first women law firms in Taiz. It was the headquarters for the group of youth who used it to set the revolution in motion.

Yasmin sat behind her empty desk and Mutlaq on a metal chair opposite her. They wanted to talk more about the state of the protests. “The situation was ripe for a revolution in Yemen, and we knew the political opposition couldn't achieve what the people want,” said Mutlaq. “Revolution is a dream, an aspiration, and we have no idea where it will end.” Dejected, Mutlaq expressed the disappointment of the youth who lost the will to go back to the square after the massacre: “The political parties stole what the youth started.” 

Mutlaq, wearing a Mi'waz (a traditional Yemeni colorful wrap), slid a little further in his chair and thoughtfully outlined the challenges facing the revolution. “In the beginning the youth were clear that this was a youth-led revolution and no political parties are welcome. Our slogan was ‘no parties or partisans.’ But within the first two weeks they [the political parties] were in full control of the square.”

“The square is a smaller version of Yemen,” said Mutlaq with irony. “The protestors reflect the political turmoil and weaknesses that have crippled the country for years, making it difficult to shake off Ali Saleh's regime. The balance of weakness between all the traditional political parties has resulted in a stalemate.”

Eight months into the revolution, and no one is able to dislodge Ali Saleh. The revolution was successfully turned from a popular uprising to a political crisis by the government.

Muslim Brotherhood

The two strongest forces on the ground within the opposition are the Socialist Party, which ruled South Yemen since 1967 until unification with the North in 1990, and the Muslim Brotherhood, known as “Islah.”

Ali Saleh, unwilling to share power with anyone who could be a viable adversary waged a war in 1994 and crushed what remained of the Socialists’ stronghold in the south. One of Ali Saleh's strongest allies in this war was from Islah. The Socialist party was stripped of most of its wealth and power in a humiliating defeat. As a result, many in Southern Yemen today consider the Northerners occupiers. 

In 1997, Islah chose Ali Abdullah Saleh as their presidential candidate as an act of self-preservation after they saw what had befallen the Socialists. But in 2006 they decided to switch sides and form an alliance with the Socialists and other opposition political parties to run against the president. The once sworn enemies became allies. The new alliance was called The Joint Meetings Parties (JMP).

“There may be a tactical agreement between the leadership of the Socialist party and Islah, but it’s a tenuous one,” said Mutlaq with disdain. The tension in the squares across the country reflects this uneasy alliance. Islah through the years had grown into a formidable force in Yemen, amassing great wealth through members, investments, and Saudi support. With well-organized Sunni religious schools, universities and charities, Islah was able, in a few years, to gain hundreds of thousands of loyal and disciplined followers. The outcome was the rise of a powerful religious right with prominent and effective leadership squeezing out a weak secular left.

“Islah feels this revolution should be theirs to monopolize. They try to control everything inside the square, even the donations that come in support of the revolution,” said Mutlaq.

Islah has a formidable political machine with the resources, organization, members and media to mobilize people and control the message inside and outside Yemen. As a result, many in Yemen have shown a willingness to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood's conservative ideology—especially in Taiz, where the Socialist party had committed atrocities that are still fresh in people’s minds. But even in an Islah haven like Taiz, people were rejecting its attempts to “lead” the revolution.

Curious to know how Islah saw the challenge to their popularity and perhaps even their bid for power after the revolution, I met with Shawqi Al Qathi, a confident, controversial, and unconventional man who is both an Imam and an activist within Islah.

Shawqi is notorious for pushing the envelope when it comes to women's integration into society. His NGO also actively campaigned against child marriage, going against the party line of one of the most famous members of Islah. 

Islah tensions 

Shawqi represents the conflicted state Islah is in. Within Islah there are at least two schools of thought. The first is the conservative Salafis represented by the notorious Abdul Majid Al Zindani, who has been put on the American terrorist list and recently stood on the stage in Sanaa’s Change square, declaring the revolution was to establish an Islamic state in Yemen (much to the dismay of many who were listening to him).

The second group is the more progressive and liberal element represented by many of the rank and file of the protest movement. They are professional doctors, teachers, businessmen, and activists who wish for a democratic civil state, and control many of the unions in the country.

Shawqi tried to smooth over this schism. “Islah for many years has been preparing its members for nonviolent struggle against the government,” he declared energetically. “They were small steps at first. The Imam in the mosque would give sermons on government failure in resolving the water shortage and getting the people to protest. The government couldn’t crack down on Islah for that. Islah needed to educate it’s base out of fear it would stand alone if too ahead of the people.”

In between sips of water and shouting back at a man out the window, he continued his defense. “When the revolution started, Islah saw it as a perfect opportunity to march but forbade its members to join as Islah but rather as individuals to not bare the brunt of the governments wrath.”

As Shawqi saw it, the perceived mistakes of Islah in the square were the natural result of individuals who are new to dealing with the “other” and a tense security situation added to the mix. “Can you imagine how difficult it was for a young conservative man to live side by side with a Socialist who doesn't share his beliefs? Who maybe comes into the tent at night drunk? How do you expect this young religious man who never left his village to react? Of course there will be trouble, it's only normal,” he said emphatically. “The mistakes were individual, not as Islah,” he declared.

He spoke as a man used to having people listen. When pushed to analyze the rising hatred towards Islah he said, “The problem might be tactical. Islah has well-organized, disciplined members, and the Socialists and independents are more free-spirited and spontaneous. So if we agree on civil disobedience on Saturday and Wednesday, you can’t just decide to change it suddenly. These things need critical mass and planning. But they saw it as controlling. It’s true, we might have still operated a bit rigidly and they were able to react more quickly to changes on the ground. We should have changed faster,” Shawqi admitted.

The differences went deeper still. The non-Islah youth had wanted to emulate the Benghazi model and just as the Libyan city had declared itself independent of Ghaddafi in the early days of their revolution, the youth wanted to declare Taiz and six other districts: Saada, Ibb, Hudaida, Thali’, Lahj and Aden, independent from Ali Saleh's rule. According to Shawqi, the plan failed to garner support from the opposition parties, especially Islah, for monetary reasons. “Not everyone is with the revolution. What happens if the city falls and there is no money to pay people’s salaries? They would turn against us. We can't afford that.”

Nonviolent revolution

Before leaving Taiz, I returned to the square. A heated debate was brewing on the meaning of a nonviolent revolution and the price of armed protection. The anger and defensiveness of those in the square was palpable. “What do you want us to do? Just sit here and have them kill us? We have the right to defend ourselves!” one man shouted, beating on his chest to emphasize the point. A woman retorted, “But look what happened when the Houthis in Saada retaliated with weapons. Twenty thousand people were killed. Violence is not the answer!” she said as a circle of protesters closed in on her.

She was referring to the six wars Ali Saleh's government waged on the Northern district of Saada close to the Saudi border. The Houthis are a religious armed militia named after the leader of their group, Hussain Al Houthi, a prominent Zaidi (an offshoot of Shia Islam) shiekh.

“Yes we know that, the price was high, but what is the alternative? We have been here for six months. The Egyptians stayed for eighteen days. How long are we supposed to stay peaceful?”

Safa Ahmad is a freelance journalist and producer based in the Middle East.