Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been facing popular protests demanding an end to his 32 years in power since the beginning of February. The anti-government movement, emulating the tactics used in Tunisia and Egypt to depose their long-serving leaders has won political concessions, but Saleh has refused to step down before the end of his presidential term in 2013. At least 20 people have so far lost their lives in clashes with the security forces.
The demonstrators want an end to corruption, the delivery of jobs, a more equitable distribution of wealth, and the reform of a governmental system that presides over the worst development indicators in the Middle East. But given the tribal nature of Yemen politics and the large number of guns in private hands, a frequently voiced concern is that the country could descend into civil war under the pressure for change, adding to the country’s humanitarian burden. IRIN spoke to protesters and government supporters on the streets of the capital, Sana’a, and the second city of Aden, on their hopes and fears.
A protester in Aden (preferred anonymity)
Four people were killed here in Ma’alla [a district in Aden] on 28 February. The police were firing wildly; shots were going through people’s windows. The Freon gas in people’s AC’s [air conditioning systems] was exploding… People of all ages are here on the street. We’re learning as we go. We’re learning that if you wash your face with Pepsi that can help against tear gas.
Yes the system is looking strong and some people are afraid, but we need to topple the system. We need the people who killed to come here. We want to show them to all the world, and then to take them to court. They killed honest people, what for? As if we were in a war.
If the president goes, maybe everything will be alright. We would risk civil war for the chance of a better life. Almost nobody in Aden has a job. If [Saleh] goes there’s a chance to build our country again. We just want to overthrow the system and improve ourselves.
Mohammed al-Ghardi, pro-government teacher
I came to [Tahrir Square in Sana’a, from Raymah Governorate] to support the president. We are urging the opposition parties to stop fomenting unrest and come to the negotiating table. They have rejected all concessions and offers of dialogue. They have even rejected participating in elections [in 2013]. Everywhere else in the world the opposition is eager for elections, but Yemen is the only place where they reject elections.
Protester in Aden: “Why is the world ignoring what is happening here?”
There are problems in Yemen, but these problems, like corruption, don’t require the ousting of the president. And the opposition keeps increasing their list of demands, this is not right. Our president said we must discuss everything, they said No.
In 2013 there will be elections, but right now this is the president we elected [in 2006]. He’s announced many times he will not stand again. Jobs, education and help to graduates will be achieved, but that can only be over time.
The crowds are bigger [in the anti-government gathering outside Sana’a University] because they are students. Here many of us are workers and must go to work. But if the government is overthrown it will affect the youth; it will take the country back 30 years and destroy the developmental gains we’ve made.
Mustafa Altayer, first year medical student, University of Sana’a
We face obstacles in our lives and we want to get rid of those obstacles. Saleh has said come to the table to negotiate, but the proper time was before. Now it’s time for him to step down. The street says ‘No to Saleh, No to corruption’.
At the beginning the protesters were just us students, and the government laughed at us. Then the opposition parties joined us, even though we don’t particularly trust them… If the one who comes after Saleh is corrupt, we’ll go back on the streets.
I hope the protest turns out like Egypt, but it could be Libya. Saleh knows his mistakes though, and I don’t think he will do anything bad [to the country]
Protester at Sana’a University (preferred anonymity)
I was born in 1978 when this president assumed power. I finished primary, high school and did my bachelors degree and MA and PhD, and it’s still the same president. Up until now I have no [full-time] job. I’m a PhD holder and I don’t have a job.
The hope of all of us is to change this man and build a better Yemen, to have a fairer distribution of resources. This can’t be achieved until Saleh and his relatives leave, they are controlling the wealth of this country.
He is a crisis creator, if he leaves Yemen we will be united, the Houthis [demanding greater autonomy in the northern Sa’ada region], the southern secessionist movement [will all work with a new government].
If the next president comes from the south, that would unify the whole country. The Houthi leaders say they are supporting change, the southern leaders abroad say they are supporting change. All liberal members of the armed forces are supporting change. The commanders of the security forces are the only ones that support the president, and they are his relatives. The ordinary soldiers are with the people.
Pro-government businessman in Sana’a
The president has said he is willing and ready to quit power, but change must come through the ballot box. We are waiting for a good replacement, somebody effective and competent enough to lead this country. But the protesters want to oust the regime; they are frustrated and want to overthrow the entire ruling party. But Yemen has al-Qaeda, and they are trying to penetrate the demonstrators and provoke violence.
It’s not tolerable for people to go onto the street and tell their president to leave. After all it was the people that elected him in 2006. If a new president comes to power, unity will be at risk. He won’t last more than a month and Yemen could break into as many as four states.
The nature of Yemenis is that they always find themselves in conflict but at the last minute find a compromise. There are people behind the demonstrators, senior opposition leaders, and they will eventually negotiate. But if the current crisis is not resolved within one or two weeks, we will see assassinations on both sides and we will target those that sent the demonstrators.
Yes, civil war may be the only way. I’m ready to mobilize my supporters to fight for the president, and 60-80 percent of the tribal sheiks support Saleh.
Mir Ali, a UK-based Yemeni protester in Aden
The West has a double-standard in maintaining these dictators. Why doesn’t [US President Barack] Obama get mad when he sees young people without any future in Yemen? Why doesn’t Obama stop giving Saleh military aid, especially when he knows the regime is going to use it to kill us?
The US has interests, we understand. But we have interests [regime change] they must also understand. All they are interested in is our oil.
The future could be bloody. But that scenario will only happen if the respectable people of the West don’t do anything [to help overthrow the government]. Otherwise we could close Baab al- Mendab [a strategic chokehold that guards access to the Suez Canal and Red Sea], that tiny bit of sea. They’re in recession now; let’s see if Europe can do without us.
Arab leaders don’t want young people to coalesce to form a movement, but things don’t last forever… What will make a difference is if the army supports the people and says enough, and goes back to the barracks.”