Change in Yemen's Change Square

As protests in Yemen enter their sixth month, the number of protestors in Change Square in Sana'a, which has been one of the hubs of anti-regime protest, has decreased significantly. By Amira Al-Arasi

Change Square in Sana’a, the square in front of Sana’a University which has been a center for anti-regime protests, has been witnessing a significant change recently. The number of protestors, especially those participating in 24-hour sit-ins, has decreased.  

Many protestors, especially tribal ones, left to support Sheikh Sadeq Al-Ahmar in his armed conflict against the regime in late May. Others feared for their lives as they thought the conflict would extend to Change Square. 

“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. 

Just before the attack on the president in his palace mosque on June 3rd, there would be at least 50,000 sit-in protestors, including women, in the square at any time. During peak times such as organised protests or after Friday prayers the number of protestors could exceed one million. Today there are fewer than 20,000 according to their own estimates. 

"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 when the president was attacked might have scared them. “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.”  

Political divide 

All protesting blocs, whether opposition parties or independent youth, admit that their revolution is still incomplete despite the president’s absence.  However, many have started to question what they are doing there in terms of goals and expectations as the protests are now entering their sixth month.  

Some of the independent activists who were there from the beginning when the protestors numbered no more than 500 people, the ones originally behind naming the area Change Square, have now left. 

Moreover, while at times there were around 2000 women in the protest area, today their numbers have decreased to 50 women or fewer. 

After the president’s speech against mixing women and men in the protests which is not accepted traditionally, many women refrained from joining the protests especially since the Islah party conservative men were also with this opinion. 

“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 had been with the revolution since the beginning. Although she insisted that she will remain in the square even if only few remain. 

At the same time, however, other protestors have decided to “branch out” and create their own extension of the Change Square.  The expansion includes an area of around 11,000 square meters starting from Sana’a University, the epicentre of the protests, and extending to several adjacent streets. 

These independent youth realize that they would be losing significant logistical support from the parties, but have decided they will try to sustain themselves on their own. 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 Islah conservative 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. 

Walid Al-Ammari one of the young leaders of the Islah Party responded to these accusations that they were exaggerated through the media. 

“There are rumours of donations, beating or deprivation of meals but I personally have not seen anything else,” he said. “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.” 

Al-Ammari denied there is any sort of divide between the protestors and that the “branching out” is only because of personal disagreements. 

“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 said. Explaining that the people who left the square have not abandoned it but are working for the revolution on different levels now elsewhere. 

He explained that many youth had to go out in order to bring fuel or cooking gas for their families now that there is a crisis in these basic needs and that Yemenis work to support their families is only another part of the revolution not abandoning it. 

“Those who really abandoned the square did not believe in our revolution in the first place,” he said. 

Speaking on behalf of the Escalation Committee, responsible for taking the protests to higher levels, of the independent youth, Ameen Dabwan said members felt that the youth are dissatisfied with the appeasement strategy of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which is 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 Islah party would not win because of their behaviour in Change Square,” he said.  

How it started 

University protests began in January 2011 when a number of students went to the Tunisian embassy to support the Tunisian revolution. They were shouting “Congratulations Tunis, we are next.”  

Then on Wednesday, February 2nd, independent youth on Facebook decided to dub the following Thursday the ‘Day of Rage’.  Following what had taken place in Cairo, they wanted to hold a sit-in in Tahreer Square near the city center. 

Protestors loyal to the state beat them to the square, and when the ‘Day of Rage’ protestors reached the area they found others already camping in it and displaying pictures of the president.  The ‘Day of Rage’ protestors moved their location to Change Square in front of Sana’a University, which became the hub for protests against the regime. 

One week after former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt resigned from power, the opposition political parties’ coalition joined the protestors in their sit-in. 

The protestors had been attacked by state security before the opposition parties joined them on Feb. 22, 2011. However, the newcomers brought food, tents, medical supplies and a real sense of organization. It was only when the opposition parties joined the protesters that the area became secured. Then, the number of protesters surged from a few thousand to tens of thousands.

The video below was recorded on March 18 when anti-Saleh protesters staged a demonstration near change square. Yemeni troops and what pro-Saleh supporters tarred a wall along the steet, and set it alight. Gunmen on rooftops shot into the crowd.


Originally published in the Yemen Times.

Image top (Change Square on 11 March): Sallam.