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How President Saleh hangs on in Yemen

19 Apr
Yemenis wonder whether the opposition would be any better
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
By Malak Shaher, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When protests in Tunisia and Egypt broke out in January, the people of Yemen watched on TV but did not take to the streets against their own long-ruling president, Ali Abdulla Saleh. They did not protest even when the Yemeni parliament that month removed term limits on the presidency, opening the possibility of Mr. Saleh becoming president for life.

It was Yemen’s opposition parties, concerned that they would remain locked out of power, that saw in the Tunisian and Egyptian demonstrations an opportunity to bring down Mr. Saleh. They began to organize rallies against the regime that continue to this day.

But while Yemen’s revolution did not begin at the grassroots, there was plenty of grassroots anger for the opposition to exploit.

Mr. Saleh has held power for 32 years, yet Yemen remains one of the poorest countries in the world. One-third of its 24 million people sometimes go without food, according to the World Food Program, and nearly half are illiterate.

Yemen relies on oil for about 25 percent of its gross domestic product, but much of the oil money has been siphoned off to Mr. Saleh’s family members, cronies and tribes instead of going to productive investment. Unemployment runs at about 34 percent, one of the highest rates in the world.

Another roadblock to prosperity is the widespread chewing of qat, a leaf containing an amphetamine-like stimulant that produces a burst of energy and euphoria. Many Yemeni men spend their afternoons on qat breaks, and the cultivation of the plant sucks up 40 percent of the country’s water supply.

Mr. Saleh also has been unable to prevent unrest between north and south Yemen, which were separate countries until 1990 and which fought a civil war in 1994. In the north, a group of insurgents claimed to establish a kingdom in 2004. In 2007, people in the south called for secession.

When the protests in Tunisia and Egypt broke out, the Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of six opposition parties, pounced. It demanded drastic reforms and called on Mr. Saleh to step down. Public rallies began in the capital of Sanaa in late January and the JMP announced a “Day of Wrath” for Feb. 3.

Mr. Saleh tried to head off the Day of Wrath by proclaiming that he would not run for president again nor arrange for his son to succeed him. “No extension, no inheritance,” he said. Mr. Saleh also lowered income taxes and offered hundreds of jobs in the public sector. But his concessions came too late.

Some 10,000 people showed up on the Day of Wrath and within a couple of weeks, the revolution was institutionalized.

People started sleeping in tents in front of Sanaa University’s front gate and renamed the area Sahat Al-Tagheer — Change Square. Peaceful protesters slept, ate, prayed, watched TV and surfed the Internet in their new tent city. They chewed qat in the afternoons.

Mr. Saleh, for the most part, left them alone, although violence occasionally broke out at some protests across the country and there were come casualties.

Then, after Friday prayers on March 18, shots rang out and the smoke of burning car tires rose in the sky. Snipers were picking off protesters and panic spread. The mayhem was shown live on TV and video was streamed onto the Web.

The shooting lasted 40 minutes, leaving Change Square covered with blood. The death count rose beyond 40.

Since that day, demonstrations have intensified across the country, as has the pressure on Mr. Saleh to resign. More than 100 Yemenis have been killed.

One of Mr. Saleh’s few accomplishments has been his empowerment of women. Yemeni women have immeasurably more freedom under law than do their sisters in neighboring Saudi Arabia. They can drive cars, hold jobs and walk about freely with uncovered faces.

Yet Mr. Saleh, in his desperation to maintain power, turned his back on women last week when he claimed they were being “un-Islamic” by demonstrating by spending day and night in the tent city with men.

Mr. Saleh miscalculated again, stirring animosity not only among women but also among men, who thought he and his supporters were defaming women. “They say [that the women] are immoral,” said a Yemeni journalist.

Last Saturday, thousands of women, including many covered in conservative black chadors, marched to demand that Mr. Saleh stop slandering them.

The protests in Yemen are rightly portrayed in international media as a popular call against poverty, corruption and Mr. Saleh. But there is another game going on in which the people are puppets used by both sides.

For every opposition protest, Mr. Saleh organizes a pro-regime rally. Of course, the opposition exploits the legitimate anger of the people while Mr. Saleh exploits his control of the treasury — by paying most of the people who support him in the streets.

But remember, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, protests in Yemen were ignited by the opposition parties, not by a groundswell of popular indignation. This is one reason Mr. Saleh continues to hang on — he sees the demonstrations as a ploy by the opposition, as opposed to a genuine people’s movement.


Women fight for their husband’s release from jail

3 Jan
Since the arrest of her husband, Waleed Sharaf Al-Deen, who was accused of spying for Iran in 2009, Alia Al-Wazeer (pictured above with her daughter Zainab) has joined the Yemeni Organization for Defending Human Rights in order to participate and organize protests demanding the release of her husband. Alia will continue working at the organization even if he is released. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Malak Shaher


Since her husband was arrested in August 2009 and accused of spying for Iran, Alia Al-Wazeer has defended him as she believes he is innocent. The 30-year-old woman and mother of two girls said that her life changed drastically when her husband disappeared for almost four months before she had any news about him.“I was in a frenzy when I found out that my husband had been at the National Security Prison for four months without knowing what he was accused of,” said Alia.Her husband, Waleed Sharaf Al-Deen, was 33 years old and worked in the United Nations office as an accountant when he was arrested. Four months later, in December 2009, he and three others were officially charged with spying for Iran and attempting to promote the Twelver Shiite doctrine.Shiites have come under increasing pressure in Yemen since the Houthis, who follow the Shiite sect of Islam, demanded in 2004 the establishment of a separate state in Sa’ada province in the north of the country. In Yemen it is a widely held belief that Shiites are supported by Iran.

“For nearly seven years, since the war with the Houthis began, the Yemeni government has had a phobia of people following the same religious doctrine as the Houthis,” explained Ali Al-Dailami, head of the Yemeni Organization for Defending Human Rights.

From the beginning of the war between the Houthis and the government in 2004 until the most recent bout of fighting in 2010, many Shiite supporters were detained in various governorates and accused of supporting the Houthis. In response to these arbitrary arrests, over a hundred women joined Al-Dailami’s organization to defend their husbands.

“Ten of the hundred women are vital members of the organization now,” Al-Dailami told the Yemen Times.

Alia Al-Wazeer is one these women. A few months after the arrest of her husband, she joined the organization, in which she both organizes and participates in protests demanding his release.

Prisoner’s wives protesting for the release of their husbands whose pictures are shown in these posters. These women demand for the release of their husbands who are allegedly unfairly detained by the Yemeni government. Source: Freedom 4 Waleed

Last year while she was participating in a demonstration in front of the Al-Saleh mosque, Alia was beaten by police women. However, her struggle has made her only more persistent. “I will defend him with my life,” she said, adding that even if her husband was released she would continue her work as a human rights activist.

“When I see my two daughters growing up without their father who was arbitrarily arrested, I realize that I have to get my family back together,” said Alia. “The last time I visited my husband in prison with my daughter she cried in such a hysterical way that the guards allowed her to see her father.”

Recently, Alia, her two daughters and other families of Sa’ada prisoners protested in front of the Political Security building. The families sent a letter to the head of Political Security asking him to respect the law. The letter also stated that the children of the detainees often had not been allowed to visit their fathers.

Waleed Sharaf Al-Deen and his three fellow detainees are examples of people who were arrested in relation to the war in Sa’ada. However, none of them has benefited from the amnesty the president decreed for Sa’ada prisoners of war. Waleed and the others remained under arbitrary custody for four months before they were officially charged and the trial began.

Twelve months later the trial is still ongoing. Waleed’s brother Ibrahim, a lawyer in the Yemeni Organization for Defending Human Rights, considers the men’s arrest illegal.

“The police broke the criminal procedures code when they arbitrarily arrested and held the detainees for a long period of time without trial,” Ibrahim Sharaf Al-Din told the Yemen Times. In his view the accusations are false.

His boss Al-Dailami explained that the arbitrary arrests have turned many members of the prisoners’ families into human rights activists. He points to Fatima Al-Ezzi, 28, as another example of a housewife turned activist.

She joined the organization three years ago when her husband Imam Al-Ezzi Saleh Rajeh was arrested. He was arrested because he had been talking about the Sa’ada conflict in his Friday sermons. He was released last Thursday.

“I didn’t know why they were holding my husband. I couldn’t visit him either,” said Fatima.

Even though her husband was released, Fatima said that she would continue working with the organization to support other prisoner’s wives.

As Al-Dailami told the Yemen Times, his organization currently tries to find out where the arrested people have been taken and why it is difficult for their families to visit them. He demanded that the state investigate these arbitrary disappearances.