Yemeni youth protest 'overshadowed' by tribal conflict

By Lina Sinjab
BBC News, Sanaa

  • Published
Yemeni anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration calling for the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on June 2, 2011

With Yemen on the brink of a tribal war, the peaceful protest movement has all but become a sideshow, says the BBC's Lina Sinjab from the capital, Sanaa.

Hundreds are fleeing the city, heading for their towns and villages, as armed tribesmen march towards Sanaa.

Tents that line the streets around University Square - now dubbed "Change square" by protesters - are half empty.

Fewer people are gathering, concerned by the growing violence. The tension is palpable.

Deadly fighting raged between armed tribesmen loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar - the leader of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation - and security forces on the streets of Sanaa on Thursday.

Witnesses and medics said at least 15 people were killed, adding to the previous day's toll of almost 50 people.

'Heated debate'

Image caption,
Sanaa has become the scene of battles between tribal fighters and security forces

"This is the last desperate act of the regime. They are running out of solutions," a female protester says.

"If they are trying to scare us, they are wrong. We will continue. Let them come and burn the whole square, we will not leave."

The clashes that resumed after the weekend between the al-Ahmar tribe and President Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces are angering many here.

The country is on the edge of civil war, people say.

In a small sitting room, seated on low cushions, a group of women activists discuss the latest developments.

They pick up khat leaves - a mild narcotic that Yemenis chew in the afternoon hours. Some smoke shisha (water pipe).

Amidst the afternoon rituals, the political debate is heated.

They loudly criticise both the al-Ahmar family and President Saleh.

"They have overshadowed our revolution," one woman shouts.  

More radical?

Amal al-Basha, who heads the Arab Women's Council for Human Rights, blames the violence on the president.

"He is the one who committed crimes and violated the law in the first place. He is the one who broke the constitution and dragged the country into this violence," she says.

"He is the one who practised state terrorism."

Image caption,
Protests began in February, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia

Mr Saleh - in power since 1978 - has refused to step down despite months of largely peaceful demonstrations that started in January.

The women also denounce Hamid al-Ahmar, the brother of Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar and a leading figure in the Islamist al-Islah party, which many fear will make Yemen more radical if it comes to power.

They say groups of al-Islah members have attacked women in Change Square, simply because they do not cover their faces.

But one activist, Houria Mashhour, says anti-government forces cannot afford to exclude anyone who stands for change in Yemen.

Al-Islah makes up 40% of the Joint Meeting Party, a coalition of opposition groups.

"Islah is not all the same face. There are the hardliners and there are the moderates," she says. "We are relying on the moderate voices amongst Islah."

Although the women's views differ about who to blame and how to go forward, almost all agree that the international community should do more.

"It is time for the international community to step up pressure on him and stop the bloodshed," says Amal al-Basha.

"This is not what we wanted. We wanted a peaceful revolution for change," she adds.

Western diplomats in Sanaa say the international community is indeed studying the possibility of stepping up pressure on President Saleh.

Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are themselves facing months of popular unrest inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. So far, they too, have clung to power.

"If [Saleh] thinks Gaddafi and Assad are the model, he is wrong," one diplomat told the BBC.

Power vacuum fears

Image caption,
President Saleh has refused to sign a deal which would transfer power to his deputy

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that Yemen's conflict will not end unless Mr Saleh and his government make way for the opposition to begin a political transition.

She repeated strong US backing for proposals by Yemen's Gulf Arab neighbours that would see Mr Saleh leave office in return for a promise of immunity from prosecution.

President Saleh has refused to sign, warning that the country will descend into chaos and bloodshed.

In addition to the uprising, his government is fighting a separatist movement in the south and an uprising of Shia Houthi rebels in the north.

There are also fears the country will turn into a hotbed of activity for al-Qaeda militants in the event of a power vacuum.

"Al-Qaeda is in Abyan, Shabwa and Mareb," says Minister of Trade Hisham Saraf Abdullah.

"They made their move when they found us busy with other issues," he says.

Although the West is concerned about the threat of al-Qaeda - especially in the south of the country - it is not a good reason to keep Mr Saleh in power, said another diplomat in the capital.

Amidst the clashes, the story in Yemen is moving away from the youth revolution.

The youth - who led this movement for change - have been marginalised.

The talk now is whether the country will go in a civil war or not.