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Yemen Protesters Refrain From Violence In Confronting Government

  • Joseph Hammond

Female antiregime protesters hold a banner during a demonstration in Sanaa on April 6.

Female antiregime protesters hold a banner during a demonstration in Sanaa on April 6.

Alaa Jarban's story isn't so different from that of other youth activists across the Middle East. After seeing protesters depicted as violent criminals on television, Jarban felt he had to do something.

"I thought to myself, 'Is it really [that] those people who go out to protest really want violence, or [are] they just asking for their rights and freedom?'" he says.

"So I posted this picture on Facebook and I tagged my friends. I shared [the] idea of going out and representing young people in a civilized way. Many people were excited and they recommended we start a Facebook group. We did and we had 100 members in just one day."

Since Jarban, 21, started the Yemen Youth Initiative in January, his group has become part of a mushrooming movement across the country. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have taken to the streets with the same chants used by protesters in North Africa: "The people demand the removal of the regime."

In Yemen, the protests have targeted President Abdullah Ali Saleh. Since he took power in 1978, the country's problems have worsened. The unemployment rate is 60 percent. Roughly 45 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. A majority of the children are malnourished. Over half of all Yemeni women are illiterate.

Protesters run from police firing tear gas during a demonstration in the southern city of Taiz.
But Saleh has vowed not to hand over power to the protesters and also used violence against them. Jarban says that makes it a struggle to keep the protests peaceful.

"All the clashes happen when the marchers go out in the cities. People with weapons come and attack the protesters, and also the security forces [attack]," Jarban says. "I've witnessed it myself. Whenever we see security forces, the march changes direction to avoid clashes with the security forces."

Committed To Nonviolence

Jarban's initiative is one of several movements in a broader umbrella of opposition groups. Another important voice of nonviolence in Yemen is Tawwak Karman, who has played a leadership role in organizing the anti-Saleh protests that broke out on January 24.

Every day, Karman, 32, wakes before sunrise to go to the front lines of the protests, organize with other opposition groups, and share the locations of rallies. The constant ringing of her Blackberry and the chants of protesters are the soundtrack of her life. It is only at the very end of the day that she heads home to her husband and three young children.

"What we need is the freezing of Saleh's entire assets which he does not hold legally," Karman says, "and the assets of his sons and the assets of his brothers and sons. These assets belong to the people."

Karman has seen close friends beaten or shot by pro-Saleh forces. She herself has been attacked by pro-government thugs. But despite the violence, she says she remains committed to the nonviolent tactics of her heroes: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi.

So far, the protesters' nonviolent approach has held steady. The Yemeni protesters have not torched government buildings like demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia. And when tribesmen -- who usually go around heavily armed in Yemen -- join their ranks, they put down their weapons for the protests.

Protesters carry an injured fellow protester in Sanaa on March 18 after snipers opened fire on them.
But the nonviolent strategy also leaves the protesters helpless when the regime uses force against them. In a notorious incident on March 18, snipers opened fire on the protesters from the buildings overlooking Taghair (Change) Square in Sanaa, killing over 50 people.

Karman says the use of force has had the opposite effect of what the regime intended. Instead of scaring protesters off the streets, it has motivated more people to take part.

She says protesters "became very angry and even more resistant [to the regime].... They came to have the will to realize their legal demands, to achieve the freedom and topple the regime."

'Dancing On The Heads Of Snakes'

Still, if the protest leaders are committed to nonviolence there is enough violence in general in Yemen to constantly raise the specter of events spinning out of control.

In Sanaa, some armed clashes between protesters and pro-government supporters have taken place and in other areas shoot-outs between different groups of soldiers have broken out.

In south Yemen, which was an independent country until 1993, government soldiers have fired on protesters. And in remote parts of Yemen, Al-Qaeda fighters continue to attack Yemeni Republican Guard forces and have even managed to seize some small towns.

That violence leads many in the international community to fear that if Saleh is deposed, the country could sink into a protracted civil war between rival powerbrokers. Saleh himself has helped to fuel those fears by describing his own rule of Yemen as "dancing on the heads of snakes."

Is President Ali Abdullah Saleh the only thing holding Yemen together?
But activists Jarban and Karman believe that a civil war is impossible. They put their faith in the way Yemenis of all backgrounds have joined the protest movement and adopted its peaceful methods.

Jarban says that "all the Yemeni people are joined [together] whether tribes, whether southern separatists, or Houthis in Saada [in the north], they all left their weapons, they all believe in the peaceful way [forward]."

If Yemen is to make it safely through a regime change, however, the activists also believe the country will need increased international support. At the same time, it has one of the weakest economies in the Arab world, whose thirsty agricultural sector is rapidly diminishing the country's water supplies.

The activists are heartened by what they now see as increasing interest in Yemen by the international community as the protests gather strength. The Persian Gulf states, France, and the United States are all carefully watching events in the country. Saleh himself has given some signals he could be open to a transition of power under certain conditions.

What those conditions are, and whether they would be palatable to the pro-reform protesters, remains unclear. But the protesters hope that with each new day of rallies, Saleh's dancing with snakes will come closer to an end.
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