Yemen is a fertile land with beaches that stretch for more than 1,700km. It is also a country in which more than 10 million people are threatened by starvation, where thousands spend their lives sneaking into neighbouring countries in search of better opportunities, and where children are violated in forced labour markets. In an age of extraordinary medical advances, the greatest hope of 24 million Yemenis is that their children are not crippled by polio. Man landed on the moon more than 40 years ago, but in Yemen, many still dream of travelling by car rather than donkey. In an age of Facebook and Twitter, many Yemenis simply wish they could read a letter from a loved one.
That is why the Yemeni revolution was formulated in the minds of the young long before it broke out on the ground. A failing economy and a deteriorating security situation, together with spiralling corruption, simply amplified most Yemeni people’s daily experience of poverty, ignorance and disease.
The people’s aspirations for something better were transformed into a crisis when President Ali Abdullah Saleh sought to extend his rule beyond 40 years and to bequeath Yemen – as if the country was one of his possessions – to his son. Young Yemenis could no longer contain their desire to become a real part of the world. We took to the streets – unarmed in a country where the people own more than 60m guns. What we wanted was a modern civil state in Yemen.
When we saw the success of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, our determination to topple the Yemeni regime was heightened. Students from the University of Sana’a went out on to the streets raising placards which called, for the first time, for the overthrow of the regime. One hour after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, thousands of youths in the city of Taiz came out to celebrate, and to announce the start of the Yemeni revolution.
When the opposition parties joined in on 21 February, it was clear that Saleh had lost all popular legitimacy and was now being propped up only by tribe, the army, vested economic interests and the international community. We knew that if he was to fall, these elements must be overcome. First, the tribes joined the revolution: the Hashid and Bakil, the largest ethnic groups in Yemen, followed by all the others.
In revenge, Saleh sent republican guard snipers to Sana’a, killing at least 45 and wounding hundreds. This bloody Friday shook the conscience of the nation. Those murdered youths had gone out into the streets carrying only their beautiful dreams, and had ended up being carried on the shoulders of others.
The killings persuaded many in the army’s leadership to declare their support for the revolution, and many in Yemen’s administrative and diplomatic bodies resigned.
Saleh then said he would step down. We knew this was a lie. He continued to exert control over the republican guard led by his son, the central security led by his nephew, and the air force led by his brother. The young people decided to escalate the protest, staging marches and sending a message about our ability to access the presidential palace.
Saleh sensed the imminence of his downfall and began to hint that he would provoke a war that would have a disastrous impact not only on Yemen but on the entire region. This led to the Gulf states’ initiative, to broker a transfer of power from Saleh to his opponents. This initiative had US support and has become Saleh’s last source of legitimacy.
However, the youth movement rejected it – partly because, under the initiative’s terms, Saleh’s departure would not be immediate, but would take place a month after the agreement was signed. Saleh has previously broken agreements after just two days, so what would he do if given a month?
The initiative also guaranteed that Saleh and his government would not be tried. This would be a betrayal of the blood of our martyrs, and of the Yemeni people who need to recover their looted wealth to rebuild their country.
And the initiative required that power be transferred to Saleh’s deputy until presidential elections could be held. We feared that a new regime could emerge from the old – different faces, but the same corruption. We demanded a regime built on a true balance of national forces, with the authority and legitimacy to ensure political and media freedoms, respect for human rights, and an independent judiciary. The Gulf initiative had also stipulated that that the protests should be suspended, but we plan to maintain the sit-ins until the objectives of the revolution have been achieved.
The Gulf initiative presents a way out for the regime, prolonging its life and stirring up disagreement between the youth and the opposition parties – who agreed to the initiative under pressure from the international community and to “stop the bloodshed”. Our young people have decided to escalate civil disobedience until Saleh’s regime is overthrown. It remains for the international community to realise that the youth will complete their revolution with or without international support.
However, the withdrawal of international legitimacy from Saleh would achieve two things: it would stop Saleh from killing any more young people; and it would reinforce the values of freedom, justice, equality and democracy for which we are struggling.
The youth of the revolution realise that once their civil state is born, it will form part of the wider world. The more the revolution is supported today by the international community, the more that will motivate the youth to become a positive international partner when that day comes.
By Wasim Alqershi, a member of the organisational committee of the people’s youth revolution in Yemen, and a former president of the Yemeni student union.
The original Arabic version of this article is available here.