Foreign Policy Blogs

How “Change Square” is Changing in Yemen


“Change Square” in Sana’a has become like Tahrir in Cairo, the epicenter of the Yemeni Revolution in the capital. For over 5 months now, Yemenis from all walks of lives have demonstrated day after day against a Regime they abhor, determined to bring about the fall of the House of Saleh.

In recent weeks however, the numbers of protesters have decreased quite significantly, especially those participating in 24-hour sit-ins.  Since the armed clashes opposing the al-Ahmar tribe and the Regime started in late May, many of the tribesmen present in the square had to leave to perform their tribal duties and protect their Sheikh. Others were simply worry that armed conflicts would morph into an all out civil war, and decided to seek refuge out of the capital with their families.

“I took my family and traveled to our village fearing a potential civil war.  There are many like me and this is why our numbers have decreased,” said Saleem Allaw, a protestor from Rada’ district, located southeast of Sana’a.

Around the time of the attack on the Presidential compound on June 3rd, the square was occupied by at least 50,000 protesters at all times. On Friday, their numbers could well exceed a million.

Today, protesters in the Square are fewer than 20,000…

The Opposition is explaining the phenomenon by saying that people had to fulfill their daily responsibilities towards their families and dependants and therefore return to normal life.

“We are very much here and will not move until the regime with all its elements falls,” said Faris al-Qadasi of the Socialist Party, a member of the Joint Meeting Parties opposition coalition. “It is just that people needed to go back to their personal businesses because the revolution has taken long.”

He added that the armed conflicts in al-Hasaba and the attack on the president scared them off. “Also there are implanted elements who claim they are independent and try to spread divisions among the youth using the notion that the conflict in al-Hasaba was personal and that their being in the square is not helpful for the revolution.”  

 Division, Division, Division

 But more than fear and the need to provide, politics has been driving Yemenis away from the square and back to their homes. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia where the Revolution remained a popular and non partisan movement, Yemen’s Revolution is suffering from an acute political hangover. All protesting blocs, might it be the JMP, the Independent Youth, or al-Islah, all admit that they have failed to give the Revolution a sense of direction and purpose. Many politicians are actually starting to question what they are doing in terms of goals and expectations as Yemen is entering its 6th month of protests.

 Many protesters feel somewhat betrayed by the political factions, saying that they were following a different agenda from that of the people, more interested in securing themselves a spot in the next government than see the Revolution succeed. “They [the politicians] are using the Youth to pressure the government into giving them ministerial positions. They want to become the next Regime. They do not care about democracy and justice…” said a young activist in the Square.

“In the beginning of the revolution we felt stronger although we were just a few university students. Now we are much more but I feel we are weaker because of the practices of the political parties controlling the square,” said Afra Al-Habouri an independent female protester who has been with the revolution since the beginning.

 The Independent Youth

 Fed up with the constant political bickering, many protesters decided to break away from Change Square, setting up their own camp nearby. Although they knew they would lose significant logistical support by seizing to be under the parties’ protections, the independent youth decided that they would fend for themselves.

Some of the families in the area cooked for them and there were continuous donation collection programs in order to sustain the protests.  
Firas Shamsan, an independent protestor in Change Square, explained this loss of support.  He said that at the outset of the protests the parties worked to attract the youth in order to further strengthen their position as they gained power. “At times meal distribution was tied to your political affiliation, so if you were independent you would not get a meal,” he said.

“We [independent protestors] have been subjected to oppression and even beating by the opposition political parties, especially the al-Islah Islamist party, even though we are all supposedly on the same team against the regime,” explained Adnan Al-Rajihi, another independent protestor. He added that while some protestors got bored and others decided the demonstrations over now that the president is gone, differences between the youth and the more experienced parties stands as the main reason for protestors leaving.

Al-Islah members violently denied all wrong doings, accusing the Medias of blowing things out of proportion in order to discredit the party.

“There are rumours of donations, beating or deprivation of meals but I personally have not seen anything else,” said Ammar al-Ammari, an al-Islah party member. “But if there was any truth to these claims there should have been investigations and evidence, we should not waste our time on these issues. In the square we are all equal and have one demand which is toppling the regime.”

“The branch-out is only an extension of the square and its revolution and anyone who demands toppling the regime is a part of the revolution regardless of his or her orientation,” he added. He also went on saying that if the square looked less busy it was because many protesters had been assigned tasks elsewhere and that the revolutionary movement was still very much alive.

Amin Dabwan, who is the Escalation Committee’s spokesman for the Independent Youth declared that the Youth was dissatisfied with the appeasement strategy of the Joint Meeting Parties, which was essentially based on dialogue and agreements with the Regime.
“It seems that these parties [the JMP] are still part of the old regime or its remnants…I guarantee that if there were true elections, the al-Islah party would not win because of their behavior in Change Square,” he said.  

 Yemen’s Revolution is far more complicated than that of Tunisia, Egypt or even Libya. Caught in between its tribal past and its desire to carve a new democratic state, Yemen is painfully moving through deep social and ideological changes. And if the Youth clearly lacks political savvy, the political factions know that they will have to strike a deal with the movement in order to win the next elections.




Catherine Shakdam
Catherine Shakdam

Although French by birth, my studies and my professional life led me to live for many years in the United Kingdom and in the Middle East.
Armed with a Master in Finance, a Bachelor degree in Psychology and 5 languages under my belt I managed to make my way through the maze of the Trading World of Wall Street, as an equity consultant. However, my interest for Politics and the Middle East gave me the necessary push to launch me as a "writer". Since then, I have voiced my opinions via my Blog and various publications such as the Middle East Post, the Guardian UK, and now Foreign Policy Association. I currently live in London.

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