Yemen’s state-funded thugs

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has played up the threat of al-Qaeda in Yemen to receive military aid f

One Friday in February, after the noon prayers, a straggle of Yemeni students and activists met in front of a small roundabout by Sana'a University and marched in solidarity with Egyptians who were frustrated with Hosni Mubarak's refusal to resign. Fewer than 20 people took part in this protest in Yemen's capital city; only two were women. Many carried pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian leader and symbol of Arab nationalism. They called on the youth to awaken, and for the fall of Mubarak.

They passed throngs of people who ignored them or looked on bemused, carrying on life as usual and buying khat, the mild, stimulating narcotic that nearly all Yemenis chew. One onlooker asked another who the man in the picture was; a traffic policeman spat out that the demonstrators were sons of whores and nobodies. A Yemeni Red Crescent car followed them. I asked one of the first-aiders why they were there. "For them," he told me, gesturing at the protesters. A lone policeman on a motorcycle and two sanitation trucks full of young men with sticks and rocks also followed.

Abruptly, more security forces arrived. Some had clubs. The trucks, each holding at least 20 men, pulled up, ready to attack the demonstrators, who scattered. But Tawakul Karman, a leading female activist, smiled and shouted, "Down, down with Ali [Abdullah] Saleh!" - the president of Yemen since 1978.

The country Saleh rules is the poorest of the Arab nations. It is an uncomfortable amalgam of North and South Yemen, which were united in 1990. In the north, he has been fighting his own Zaidi Shia people, who seek autonomy, bombing their villages, displacing thousands, and then attacking the displaced civilians. In the south, too, he is at war with secessionists.

Saleh delegates control over much of Yemen to tribal sheikhs whose loyalty is tenuous. The country's powerful Saudi neighbours are deeply involved in its internal affairs; their money has purchased officials and helped to spread Wahhabi Islam. The president has used members of al-Qaeda to battle his domestic foes, yet he has also played up its threat to extort money from the Americans, who see the Muslim world only through the prism of the "war on terror".

As in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, Washington has had a close relationship with Yemen's dictatorship through the crackdown on terrorism. Barack Obama increased military assistance for Yemen from $67m in 2009 to $150m in 2010. Documents released by WikiLeaks showed that the US-backed Yemeni security forces, which were supposed to be fighting al-Qaeda, were targeting Zaidis instead. I have seen evidence suggesting that they are also fighting southerners, journalists and students.

Al-Qaeda is marginal in Yemen, its activities amounting to little more than the failed Underwear Bomber attack in 2009 and a couple of package bombs that failed to detonate last year. Yet action against it has provided a pretext for suppression of dissent. Terrorism might be a primary concern of the US government and the global media, but it is far from the biggest problem facing Yemenis.

Broken promises

On 2 February, in response to the revolt in Egypt, Saleh promised not to run again in 2013 (a promise he made and broke before the 2006 elections). He also said that his son would not succeed him.

In Sana'a, as in the rest of the Arab world, it was not the establishment parties that started the revolution, but the youth. On 11 Feb­ruary, the night Mubarak resigned, thousands of Yemeni students, academics, activists and citizens gathered at the university roundabout. They shouted: "One thousand greetings to al-Jazeera!" They wanted the powerful satellite network to focus on them, as it had on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

As the demonstrators grew in number, they gathered in Tahrir ("liberation") Square, Sana'a. Most of it was blocked off by security forces and the tribal factions with which they were col­laborating. At least ten army trucks carrying dozens of men dressed as civilians soon arrived. Hundreds of reinforcements carrying sticks, knives, automatic weapons and pictures of Saleh turned up, too. These were the balataga, thugs paid by the state to crush dissent.

In a series of skirmishes, the balataga charged the youth, forcing them to flee, then sang, banged drums and danced. It was a symbolic victory: the regime had no intention of letting them occupy Tahrir, unlike in Egypt. "This is the problem," Karman told me. "They send these balataga with their knives. Since the Tunisian revolution, we have organised 11 demonstrations. The revolution is getting bigger. The [balataga] occupy Tahrir so we can't take it, but we will sleep there one day."

Big sticks

By this time, Karman had been arrested twice. Her brother, who was close to the regime and recited poetry at official events, got a phone call from Saleh. "You have to control your sister and put her under house arrest," the president said, adding an Arabic expression: "Whoever splits the stick of obedience, kill him."

“This threat and the arrests empowered the human rights movement and strengthened my will," Karman told me. She was aware of the WikiLeaks revelations about state security. "The national security bureau was founded after 11 September to fight terrorism in Yemen but it fights journalists and human rights acti­vists. It oversees terrorism instead of fighting it."

By mid-February, people from outside the activist network were joining the demonstrations. Among them was a mechanic, Muhamad Ali al-Muhamadi, who told me he did not belong to a political party and did not own a television. “I joined because I am against the regime," he said. "Humans are born free and are not animals to be guided by a stick."

On 12 February, Muhamadi joined more than a thousand demonstrators at the university. The balataga attacked them with daggers, clubs, axes and stun guns. Muhamadi was stunned several times.

The next day, there were larger protests in the capital where security men took pictures but schoolchildren and those in traffic cheered and waved. At least 20 demonstrators were beaten with batons and many were arrested. The journalist Samia al-Aghbari was attacked by guards who threw her to the ground. Her head hit the kerb and she lost consciousness. One security officer loaded his rifle to intimidate men trying to protect Karman. Others were stunned electrically, including Mizar Ghanem, 31, a student leader.

“We first came out on 16 January," he said. "Our first activity was to support the Tunisian revolution and call for the fall of the regime in Yemen. We are a peaceful youth and student revolution." This time, they could not reach Tahrir, so they renamed the square in front of the university Taghir, meaning "change".

By 16 February, the protests had spread even further. Hundreds of judges were protesting in front of the ministry of justice and new demonstrators had come out in response to a call by the student union. Police trucks dropped off dozens of balataga, who attacked the crowds with stones, chains and clubs and fired gunshots into the air. Policemen in plain clothes attacked the students. Amir al-Gimri, a medical student who is lame in one leg, was unable to escape. Police and balataga attacked him, calling him a traitor and spy, slapping his face and throwing him to the ground. They beat his head and legs with clubs as he lay helpless.

French leave

In the two months since the Yemeni protests began, the regime has responded as aggressively as other Arab dictators. But the people's fear seems to have gone and I feel that Saleh's days are numbered. That Friday in February, I was sitting in a taxi when a young man at an intersection threw a leaflet through the window. Youth organisations were calling for peaceful demonstrations on 17 and 18 February, it said.

It was 3pm and already the driver's mouth was full of khat. I asked him if there would be any demonstrations today. "He [the president] has to go," he said, "like in Egypt."

I fired questions at him. Did he expect a mass uprising in Yemen? "There has to be one," he said. How will Saleh go? "In a revolution." Does everyone think like this? "Yes." What about the army and security forces? "When there is a revolution, there is no fear." But what can you do when Tahrir Square is full of government supporters? "We'll remove them," he said, smiling and gesturing forcefully. "He has to go, to Saudi Arabia or France."

“God grant you victory," I said as I left. He smiled a big, green-toothed khat grin.

The demonstrations continue to grow, forcing the opposition parties to take a harder stance against the government and leading to defections of major tribal leaders. Meanwhile, the silence from the White House on the regime's abuses makes it likely that a post-Saleh government will be far less friendly to the Americans.

With the earthquake in Japan distracting the world's attention, the state forces intensified their crackdown over the weekend of 12 March, killing at least seven and injuring hundreds more. In a pre-dawn raid, the youth demonstrators camped by Sana'a University were ambushed with live automatic rifle fire, electrical stun guns and a gas that caused convulsions. The regime is now expelling the few remaining foreign correspondents covering the protests.

Still, there is hope here that Saleh's rule is near an end. Already, the optimistic chant is: "After Gaddafi, oh, Ali!"

Nir Rosen is the author of "Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World" (Nation Books, £20.99)