Thursday, May 19, 2011

While Yemen's President Holds On, Youth Activists Plan Their Next Steps on Facebook

This Q & A was published on

It has been three months since youth took to the streets in Yemen. As President Saleh goes back and forth about whether or not to accept a deal for a brokered resignation of power, camps in city centers throughout the country show no sign of dissolving.

While they wait - and continue to protest - what are Yemen's pro-democracy youth activists up to? As the Yemeni based activist Atiaf Alwazir describes in this Q & A, they are making heavy use of Facebook groups to form plans for what will come next and to organize one another so that, if the time comes, they can most effectively put those plans into place.

Atiaf was born in Sana but left when she was 1 years old. Her family lived in various places before settling in the U.S., and she recently returned to Yemen in order to get involved in the pro-democracy and human rights activism there. She runs the blog Woman From Yemen.

Q: What compelled you to become an activist in the first place?

A: Many reasons. One is that as an NGO worker i've dealt directly with social, economic, and political problems that face Yemen for many years. Anyone working in development will quickly realize that the root cause of Yemen's poverty is the corrupt government. Second, human rights violations were so rampant in Yemen, and this is something I have always been outspoken about. Third, my family background: my father is a historian who has written extensively about Yemen, and my uncles as well. Due to their outspoken nature, they had to live abroad. Growing up in that environment influenced me. I felt that i was lucky to get the education i got in the US, and that i had a duty and responsibility to give back to Yemen.

Q: Only 2% of the population in Yemen has internet access. How has information about protests spread through Yemen?

A: In many major cities there are "sit-in" sites that have turned into "mini cities" for the protesters. The areas have tents, vendors, and seminars. People are camped there and have been there for three months. So decisions to march are spread via the stage at the sit-in site, and mainly via SMS and Facebook.

Between cities, protesters are trying to coordinate using phone calls, Facebook, and SMS messages. For example deciding what to name a Friday (every Friday has a name) many groups chat to discuss it from different cities to try to unify the name nationwide. Sometimes one city decides and others follow.

Yes, only 2% of the population has internet access, but the majority of young activists find ways to get online. As an example, it's now 1 AM and practically everyone I know is on Facebook. i'm part of at least 14 Yemeni groups, discussing the revolution, organizing, suggesting ideas. These groups all have around 1000 members - not many compared to the number of people in the street, but many of them are leaders and activists. There are different groups - one is called the group for coordination, where people can share ideas on how to run things and what to do next. One is for creating and finalizing the "youth demands" document (now that it's finalized group is not as active). One is a women's revolutionary group talking about women's issues (the role of women in the revolution, and how to guarantee women's rights post revolution), then others are groups associated with specific movements or youth coalitions discussing activities related to them at specific city squares.

The role of media is very important in this revolution, like the other revolutions it was inspired by, to make people aware and help in coordination.

Q: If Saleh were to give in to youth protesters' demands tomorrow, what would you want to happen? Who would lead?

A: The demands are quite extensive and detailed - it includes the fact that a transitional government should lead the country. and they should not be part of the former regime. and that later fair elections should be held after electoral commission is changed & electoral law amended. This was signed by over 150 groups and coalitions in the squares around the country

Q: Have youth activists learned from the lessons of Tunisians and Egyptians when it comes to planning for the transition?

A: We here are watching that closely...and I think because we have more time here, on the one hand it's taking too long, but on the other hand it's giving people the time to network and organize more than in Cairo and Tunis. It's clear to many of us, that the revolution is ongoing even after Saleh leaves the post-revolution will be the longer and harder struggle

That's why in some of the group's mission it says that they will be working during and after the revolution, in order to protect the revoultion from being hijacked...and to make sure that demands are met.

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