Written By: Nawal Al-Maghafi For the Yemen Observer
Article Date: Jun 13, 2012 - 6:27:33 PM
Producer of BBC Arabic’s ‘The President’s Man and His Revolutionary Son’ I remember vividly those intense moments from a year ago when, sat with my family, we watched the extraordinary uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt unfold on our TV screen.
Abdo al-Janadi the spokesperson of Presient Saleh and his revolutionary son.
I particularly remember having that seemingly inevitable thought: what if this was to spread to my own country, Yemen? At the time, protests in Yemen were still fairly minor in scale.
They had started in Taiz, arguably the country’s most ‘modern’ city, but had not yet generated momentum the way the uprisings had elsewhere. However, on the 21st of February 2011, a group of university students decided to set camp at the gates of Sana’a University and, day by day, more people joined their ranks. Incredibly, a small outpost quickly became a tent-city of thousands: ‘Taghyeer (Change) Square’ was born.
When I flew to Yemen last year (my country of origin, though I was raised in the UK,) for a family visit I had little idea that I would end up being a witness to history in the making.
Over the ensuing months, it was exhilarating to watch the incredible ebbs and flows of the story: how doubts over the success of the revolution, predominant among most Yemenis at the start, turned into confidence and determination to see it through.
At the outset, it became obvious that Yemen was going through a deeply polarising phase. Driving around the streets of Sana’a there were posters supporting President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while others uncompromisingly demanded “leave Saleh! Leave!”.
In a country where over half the 24 million-strong population lives on less than $2 a day, with 47% subsisting under the poverty line, such a divide might have seemed surprising.
Clearly, despite most Yemenis being dissatisfied with their current circumstances, not all saw the overthrow of the Saleh government as necessarily the best way forward. For me, this divide wasn’t just an abstract political notion.
My daily visits to Change Square were met with the vocal disapproval of my own grandmother, an ardent Saleh supporter, who had voted for him time and time again during his three-decade rule.
My grandfather, on the other hand, supported the protests and would drive me to the square himself. He never took part, however. As a victim of Saleh’s regime, the fear of reprisals had been too overwhelming.
My grandmother and grandfather would argue about politics continuously, an echo of similar discussions in every home, street, neighbourhood and social gathering across Yemen. Figuring out my own position was no easy matter.
It was my curiosity that had initially taken me to Change Square, yet I found my sympathies sway back and forth between support for the protesters and finding Saleh’s speeches, appealing to the country to keep faith in him, often compelling. One truly revolutionary characteristic of this movement has been its largely peaceful nature.
This is no mean feat in a country containing an estimated 70 million firearms – outnumbering the inhabitants three to one. Still, protesters resolutely refused to veer off their peaceful course and, incredibly, according to Amnesty international, no protester has ever brandished or used a weapon in Sanaa’s Change Square.
I remember well that Thursday evening, 17th of March 2012, when I opened up a discussion with my family, and a heated debate erupted in our household. I had asked what the consequences of Saleh being toppled would be for the country.
But the mere fact of entertaining such a possibility was too upsetting a prospect for my grandmother and aunties, for whom Saleh was “the best thing that has ever happened to this country”.
Predictably, my father and grandparents boldly disagreed with them, insisting Saleh’s record had been a dismal one, and his departure not only inevitable but necessary.
The day after, Friday 18th, saw a dramatic change. As the protesters were praying, armed men positioned themselves on the rooftops of surrounding buildings.
The wall separating Change Square from the surrounding neighbourhoods was set alight and, at the end of the Friday prayers, tensions erupted. For almost 45 minutes, there was continuous shooting, resulting in 53 dead and countless injured.
The Square’s makeshift hospital was overflowing with casualties.
Mothers were crying with so much pain in their voices, holding onto the bodies of their revolutionary sons. Fathers were on their knees, praying that their children would survive.
I was shocked; who could be capable of inflicting so much pain upon their own compatriots? On that day, Change Square became a fortress of determination and defiance: no matter what, there was no going back until the Saleh regime was history.
That pivotal moment soon produced a domino effect. Many of those who had so fervently supported Saleh turned against him and switched their support to the revolution.
Indeed, an entire army division, led by Saleh’s half-brother, Sadeq Al-Ahmar, defected and stationed itself around the Square to protect it.
Within days, politicians, tribal leaders and an increasing number of countries from around the globe condemned Saleh and his regime. However, one man stood strong by the president’s side: Abdu Al-Janadi, Yemen’s deputy minister of information and government spokesperson, who became the de-facto face of the regime at its critical hour.
Having witnessed the bodies being carried into the field hospital on the ‘Friday of dignity’, I went home to find Abdu al-Janadi on the TV screen insisting those very same bodies I had seen, with my own eyes, minutes earlier were fake.
Moments later, al-Janadi’s own son, Abuthar, issued a powerful statement, cursing Saleh’s regime, condemning his father’s words, and offering his support and solidarity to the revolution.
The al-Janadis’ father-son divide was an eloquent reflection of the country at large, representing the conflict between those striving for change and for a new Yemen; and those who were so passionate in their support for Ali Abdullah Saleh that they could never blame him for such actions Since no enquiry had been carried out into whether Saleh or any of his associates were responsible for that Friday’s killings, I still couldn’t categorically blame Saleh.
After all, the possibility that those culpable were rogue elements operating of their own volition remained a plausible one. However, I did wonder: how could the Saleh regime claim the bodies were fake? Did Abdu Al-Janadi himself truly believe his own propaganda? How did he feel when his son condemned him, time and again, live on TV for millions of Yemenis to see? Wasn’t he ever worried about his own son’s safety in Change Square, like my family had feared for mine?
The President’s Man and His Revolutionary Son, a documentary on BBC Arabic, explores the lives of Mr Abdu al-Janadi and his son, Abuthar. In the programme, Abdu Al-Janadi welcomes us into his world, giving us an inside look into the last months of the Saleh regime. We meet President Saleh himself and his associates, giving them an opportunity to tell their own side of the story.
We also travel to Taiz to meet Dr Abuthar Al-Janadi, as well as spending time in Change Square so as to understand the demands of the protesters and why they are so adamant that Yemen is in need for change.
I asked them those very questions that had been lingering in my own mind since the extraordinary events of Yemen’s Spring had begun to unfold all those months ago.
I was tremendously curious to hear both sides of the story, but also hoped they would agree to come together to see if Yemen’s raw wounds could finally be healed. Whatever shape they might take such reconciliatory steps are surely necessary for Yemenis to move beyond Saleh’s legacy and towards the brighter, better future their sacrifices clearly deserve.
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