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Sunday March 27, 2011
Story by SHAHANAAZ HABIBPhotos by GLENN GUAN
On Friday, anti-government protesters showed Yemen's president of 32 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the red card. But the embattled president insists he would only leave the field when he can hand power over to “safe hands”.
DRESSED in his soldier's uniform and red beret, Jamil Ali stopped briefly at a tea stall to have a sip of hot “Tea of Freedom with the flavour of Dignity.” He has been in the army for 17 years, all the while protecting the regime. But now he is protecting anti-government protesters from potential attacks by the regime.
“The authorities have already stopped (paying) my salary and they have said they will charge me for defecting,” he says. “But I don't care. I don't care about the salary, or about being detained or being charged. I am ready to sacrifice myself.”
Jamil, who declares that he has sworn his allegiance to protect the people who are fighting for freedom, has been at the heart of the anti-government protests in Taghyeer (“Change” in Arabic) Square for 28 days. And he has the full backing of his wife.
Jamil was born 32 years ago, the year Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh came into office. And like the other protesters at the square, he thinks 32 years on the “throne” is long enough, especially when the president has done very little to improve the lives of ordinary Yemenis.
Despite its rich natural resources oil and natural gas and its proximity to the sea, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Almost half its population are poor, one in five people are malnourished, 65% are unemployed, and corruption is pervasive in all spheres of life. People here are saying you have to pay bribes to lodge a police report, do business, or get back your ancestral land that has been seized by the Government. You can pay a bribe if you want to win a case in court, too.
Buoyed by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which booted out Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak respectively, Yemenis, hoping for a similar change, are also camping out on the streets in what they call “Change” Square to give their own leader the “red card”.
They are chanting: “After Mubarak, you Ali (Saleh). Before Muammar (Gaddafi), you Ali (Saleh).”
Whatever respect Jamil had for Saleh before went flying out of the window on March 18, the day snipers loyal to the regime stood on rooftops and shot at unarmed protesters gathered at the square after Friday prayers. Fifty-six people were killed and hundreds of others were injured.
“The president is to blame. It is he who killed the people. I was there on Friday and I saw the snipers. It is obvious that they are trained and professional. It was well organised,” says Jamil.
“They aimed at the head, neck and chest. They shot to kill. Who else could the orders have come from if not the president?”
Heeding the protesters' request to keep the square free of weapons, Jamil did not take his gun with him that Friday.
That bloody attack not only backfired on Saleh but it also emboldened the protesters who showed up in bigger numbers.
Ministers, ambassadors, tribal leaders, and top army commanders including the powerful Gen Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, disgusted with what happened, threw their support behind the protesters and asked Saleh to erhal' (leave).
Last Friday, there was a marked difference at Taghyeer Square. Soldiers with loaded AK-47s were on the rooftops and at the entrances into the square. Musa Ahmad, a 19-year-old soldier, estimates that there were about 3,000 of them but this time around, they were protecting the anti-government protesters.
“If there are snipers or anyone trying to gun down protesters, we will shoot them down,” he says.
Petroleum engineer Omar Al-Abbasi was among those who showed up at the square last Friday, which the protesters dubbed the “Day of Departure” to pray and also to show the president the red card.
They had shown Saleh the yellow card the previous week, and Omar says they would keep showing the president the red card “until he gets it”.
“Saleh is still showing that he still doesn't understand that time's up. In that regard, he is worse than Mubarak. Maybe you can compare him with Gaddafi because both are so attached to their chair and refuse to leave.”
As a petroleum engineer with a foreign company, Omar draws a hefty salary every month. So he doesn't need to be at the square protesting about poverty and unemployment.
“But I am thinking about my neighbours and relatives. And after the bloodshed last Friday, it would be very bad for me or my children to stay at home. I would not be a good Muslim or a good human being if I did that,” says Omar, whose six sons were with him at the square.
That same Friday, Saleh also had his own gathering in the city with tens of thousands of pro-government supporters calling it “The Day of Tolerance”.
The embattled president who has already agreed to step down by Jan 2012, an offer which was snubbed by anti-government protesters who want him to go now, indicated that he would be prepared to leave even sooner if he could hand power over to “safe hands”.
A cab driver who is pro-government says Saleh is right.
“He cannot just leave without putting in place an acceptable alternative. Who is to govern us if he quits just like that? Three-quarters of the people love and support him,” says the cabbie.
But anti-government protesters were insulted by Saleh's comments. “Does Saleh think, in a country of 27 million, that there is nobody who can take over and govern? There are a lot of capable people around who can lead the country in a good way.
“Saleh has taken this country backwards in the 32 years he has been in power. We want our nation back so that we can race with the rest of the world,” says Samy Alwan, who wants to study civil engineering.
Businessman Abdullah Morshed believes those who want Saleh to stay are those who have not been outside the country and thus have nothing to compare Yemen with.
He sees pressure piling up on the people as prices of essential goods and services, including electricity and rent, keep going up.
Saleh's government, which is made up of a large number of his family members, are so busy with their construction, oil, telecommunication and other businesses “that they are not doing their (government) job for the people,” he says bitingly. “They have no time. They are not free for the public.”
Despite the protests and heightened tension, most markets, shops and restaurants in Sana'a, including those in the protest area, are open. There are lots of cars on the road and Internet and phone lines are working as normal.
As a defiant Saleh appears to be hobbling out, uncertainty remains about how the end will be played out.
While a number of top army generals, their brigades and soldiers have defected to back the protesters, there is an equal number still loyal to Saleh. His son, Ahmad, commands the Republican Guard and Special Forces; his nephew, Yahya Saleh, is in charge of the Central Security Forces and the Counterterrorism Unit while another nephew, Ammar, heads the National Security Bureau. With these units backing the president, there are fears of a military showdown between the two sides.
Popular Yemeni singer Abdul Rahman Al-Akhfash is one of Saleh's favourite performers and used to be invited to perform at the president's house so regularly that people called him the president's singer.
But he has also been at Taghyeer Square for weeks to urge the president to step down immediately.
“I know Saleh. He's a good man and I think he wants to step down. But the problem is there are more than a hundred of his family members working for him in government and in companies.
“They include his brothers, sons, brother's sons, daughters' husbands, and so on. And they are the ones who are holding Saleh by his hands and throat and stopping him from leaving. They know if he leaves, they too are gone,” he states.
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