Qat Got Their Tongues

It occurs to me as I listen to the shouts of the young protesters in the streets here that they could use most of the chants of the Egyptian protesters verbatim — save for the ones about Suzanne Mubarak, the former first lady of Egypt. This is because the mere mention of any of the four wives of our president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, would be a shameful violation of a tribal taboo.

The state-controlled news media continue to assert that Yemen is neither Tunisia nor Egypt. But the president and his minions have been watching their backs since the success of the Egyptian revolution, as most of the revolutionary movements in Yemen have been influenced by earlier Egyptian events. The 1952 revolution in Egypt belatedly inspired the 1962 revolution in Yemen, which split our nation in half for nearly three decades. There is even a celebrated Tahrir, or Liberation, Square here in Sana, just as in Cairo.

It is not only the authorities who are nervous: most Yemenis are hoping to wake up one day and discover that the revolution has arisen earlier than they have; just like that, painlessly, with no losses. As much as they long to follow the path of Tunisia and Egypt, they are worried about the repercussions such a revolt might have, including a civil war should certain tribes align themselves with President Saleh.

In recent days, the president has met with tribal leaders in the Sana area and paid a visit to an army barracks. It’s a clear indication of his fears that the Islamist Congregation for Reform, or Islah Party, might infiltrate the two pillars of his regime, the tribes and the military. Islah, once a vital ally of the president’s, has thrown in its lot with the opposition.

For the last two weeks, members of Mr. Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, have set up large tents in Tahrir Square, attempting to pre-empt any protests. Hundreds of tribesmen take shifts at the tents, raising banners in support of President Saleh. Cars with government markings deliver their meals, along with handouts of cash that they spend on the stimulant qat. They sit in their tents for hours each day, chewing qat and listening to preachers on loudspeakers urging Yemenis to love their country and protect it against “troublemakers” and “foreign agents.”

Until recently, the protest movement had been quite tame. On Feb. 3, for example, an online call went up for a demonstration at Sana’s central mosque; one young blogger urged his fellows to “stop using qat for one week only, for Yemen’s sake, for the sake of change and dignity.” Yet when I joined the protest around noon, there were only about 20 people, chanting slogans. “Tens of thousands of people joined the protest in the morning,” one of them told me, “but they’ve left now and will come back in the evening.”

As angry as they were with the government, they were equally frustrated with Islah. “We’re here to free the Yemeni people from the bonds of darkness,” another protester told me, “and there they are with loudspeakers beseeching God to break the siege of Gaza and bring down the Egyptian Pharaoh.” I stood for a while, listening to their chants: “If the people decide one day to choose life/then fate must heed their call”; “Ali, enough, enough/Leave, let yourself out”; and, when a police car passed by, “The army, the police and we/are all connected by our need for daily bread.”

The most striking was, “We will not sleep until the regime falls,” which Yemenis understand means that the protesters had foregone qat that afternoon (users tend to become lethargic after its stimulant effect wears off). Still, the large crowd of the morning never returned, apparently having succumbed to qat’s temptations.

More recently, however, the perseverance of young people like those 20 at the mosque seems to have paid off. For the last seven days there have been a series of localized but violent clashes between protesters and supporters of the regime backed by the police. Fortunately, Western news reports tell us that the police have so far fired their guns only into the sky as a warning. And the protests have spread across Yemen, to Aden, Taiz and other cities.

I, like many others, don’t think that President Saleh’s hastily made pledges — including his promises not to run for president again, to create a fund to employ university graduates and to increase wages and reduce income taxes — will assure his regime’s survival. The virus of revolution that overtook Tunisia and Egypt has taken hold.

To many here, that is a troubling thought. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen is tribal and could easily fall into civil war. Still, while I understand the risks, I believe that the future cannot be worse than the present. Yemen may be a fractured society, but I have faith that we can unite against a nepotistic regime that has plundered our resources and given us little but misery.

By Ali al-Muqri, a novelist. This essay was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic.

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