Anti-government protests are swelling in Yemen amidst U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s refusal to step down after more than 32 years in power. On Monday, dozens were wounded after state forces opened fire on demonstrators in Marib province. As unrest grows, the Yemeni government is cracking down on international media coverage of the protests. Four journalists, including two U.S. citizens, were arrested and deported on Monday. We speak with Yemeni activist and blogger in Sana’a, Atiaf Alwazir, and to Gregory Johnsen, a Near Eastern studies scholar at Princeton University currently in Cairo. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We turn right now to Yemen, where anti-government protests are swelling amidst U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s refusal to step down after more than 32 years in power. On Monday, dozens were wounded after state forces opened fire on demonstrators in Marib province. The local governor was stabbed in a confrontation with protesters. Meanwhile, three soldiers were reported killed while confronting an anti-government protest in a northern province. At least ten protesters were wounded. Five people were also injured when Yemeni forces fired bullets and tear gas at a peaceful rally in the city of Mukalla. At least seven protesters have died in clashes since Saturday, raising the death toll so far to more than 30.
As the unrest grows, the Yemeni government is cracking down on international media coverage of the protests. Four journalists, including two U.S. citizens, were arrested and deported on Monday. The journalists say Yemeni forces raided their shared apartment in the capital Sana’a and told them they were being expelled for their coverage of the demonstrations. Two foreign journalists were also deported on Saturday.
For more on Yemen, we’re joined right now Atiaf Alwazir, a Yemeni activist and blogger who’s been participating in the protests since January. She is part of a youth coalition that is drafting the, quote, "principles of the revolution."
Atiaf, welcome to Democracy Now! Thank you for joining us. Talk about what’s happening right now on the ground in Yemen.
ATIAF ALWAZIR: Pro-democracy protests are continuing in Sana’a and have expanded nationwide. And what most people thought couldn’t happen is really happening in Yemen. People are in the streets calling for change peacefully, despite the fact that many Yemenis are armed. Yet, they’ve resisted and are continuing to resist using their weapons for the past five weeks, at least a majority of the time, even when they were violently attacked with live ammunition, also attacked with excessive use of tear gas. Like you said, over 30 people were killed, including a 13-year-old boy in Mukalla from a gunshot. And this is really only serving to empower and strengthen the movement.
And what’s really amazing is that this is becoming a civic experience. It’s better than a thousand awareness-raising programs. When you go to the squares of change, you know, you have people from various backgrounds. You have the Islamists. You have the socialists. You have men, women, Houthis, Salafis. Everybody is in the same place interacting together. And they’ve put their differences aside and are demanding only one thing: an end to Saleh’s corrupt one-family military rule.
When you’re in the square, you feel like it’s a new Yemen. Youth from various coalitions, from various backgrounds, are coming together. You know, they’re talking about: what do we want next? What do we want from this movement, from this revolution? What do we mean by an end of the regime? What kind of regime do we want? What are the future plans?
There’s really no turning back to this. You know, so far there’s an increase in number of resignations from GPC members, an increase in number of protesters on the ground, despite, again, the violence. Every time there’s violence, there’s more people. People I know that are apolitical — you know, they never participate in protest — joined after the violent attacks. They donated blood, donated food. These are the brothers, these are the sisters, and they’re seeing this, and they’re joining. More tribal members are joining, as well. And this is a pressure point for the government. So, there’s really no turning back.
And the U.S. should really take that into consideration. Saleh is leaving sooner or later, and they need to be outspoken about the tear gas that was used that said — that was made in U.S.A. They need to address this. They need to address the people, because the people are going to be there. And they should really address that.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re also joined by Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen. He works in the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University. He’s joining us right now from Cairo. Gregory, put this in context. What is the U.S. role in all of this? And what is happening right now internally in Yemen?
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Well, for the U.S., there’s not a whole lot they can do. We saw the U.S. ambassador give a couple of statements recently in the press. The U.S. has continued to press both the Yemeni government and the opposition to negotiate, and that’s just not something that the opposition in Yemen is willing to do. They see Saleh really at the weakest point in his 32 years of rule, and they’re unwilling to throw him a lifeline. And so, the U.S. is kind of stuck right now in supporting the person that it has backed for the past three decades and really not knowing what comes after him.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what would you expect to happen if Saleh does fall?
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Well, I think the most likely thing that would happen is that some sort of a council of around five individuals, five to seven people, old wise men of Yemen, would come together as sort of a trusteeship to try to steer Yemen through the next few months, before they can put in a new constitution and have new elections. That’s probably the most likely scenario, at least at this point. But anything that happens, going forward, any violence, any protracted clashes, could change that significantly.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And we’re going to end with Atiaf Alwazir on the phone from Yemen. What should people understand most about what’s happening right now? These protests are growing increasingly violent. The crackdown is becoming more violent. What is going to happen in these coming days?
ATIAF ALWAZIR: I suspect probably more violence. But the people will continue to go to the street. The people will not stop. The movement has started, and there’s no turning back to this. And I just wish that the U.S. administration would address these violent attacks, condemn them, because it is against the U.S. principles and values, and it’s really reflecting negatively on U.S. reputation.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re going to have to leave it there. Atiaf Alwazir is a Yemeni activist and blogger who’s been participating in the protests since January. She’s part of a youth coalition in Yemen. And Gregory Johnsen, joining us from Cairo, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen, he works in the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University, a PhD candidate there.