Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat – Yemen’s “Freedom Square” used to be a road opposite the Yemeni cabinet headquarters, the Ministry of Information, the television broadcasting building and the Russian embassy.
The square was once located at the end of 26 September Street, which is an old narrow street that was restructured during the September 1962 revolution. Today the street significantly widens towards the government headquarters so that it forms a public square.
The story of Freedom Square began when former Yemeni president Abdul Qadir Bajamal’s government prohibited vehicle entry into the road; perhaps it was intended as a security measure, or to put an end to noise pollution and keep the area around the cabinet’s headquarters aesthetically beautiful. The road was paved in tile and stone and later became accessible only to vehicles belonging to government officials.
Before the opposition became aware of the sensitivity of the area and before it began to stage demonstrations and sit-ins, sometimes university graduates, including those looking for work and others who had been dismissed from their jobs, would congregate there. They would gather at the square every Tuesday, which coincided with the government’s periodical meetings. They would demand jobs or condemn the decision for their dismissal, furthermore demanding to go back to work.
With the escalating demands of the Yemeni opposition, which forms a “joint meeting” bloc that includes five main political parties, (most notably the Islah Yemeni Congregation for Reform Party and the Yemen Socialist Party; the former is Islamic inclined while the latter is right-wing), in addition to NGO freedom-related demands, the public square has become an arena where demands are vocalized every Tuesday.
Over the past few months, it has become a tradition that is followed by the oppositional parties and organizations, much to the government’s anger, which mockingly suggested that the opposition should make use of the garden in “Democracy Square” near to the Yemeni presidential house in the same way that London’s Hyde Park has its protesters’ stage.
Among the most central issues that drive Yemenis to demonstrate are demands to lift governmental and legislative restrictions so as to make way for the political opposition force and the private sector to set up audiovisual media outlets.
But why has the opposition chosen to stage its demonstrations in front of the cabinet building rather than the presidential headquarters, with knowledge that decisions in Yemen are issued by the president, not the cabinet.
Ali al Jeradi, the editor-in-chief of the independent weekly ‘Al-Ahali’ newspaper told Asharq Al-Awsat that the protesters had started to congregate there after the Ministry of Information announced that it was closing down a mobile phone news service that was broadcast by one of the local oppositional papers.
“We consulted with NGOs and planned to stage a demonstration in the square opposite the cabinet building and we published this news and called the area “Freedom Square”, which is how it got its name. The plan was that we would start the protest there, however it escalated and was transferred to various other locations,” said al Jeradi.
The editor explained that the idea had appealed to political parties and organizations and as such, the square became a stage for these protests. This is mainly due to the fact that the government is the executive authority in Yemen.
However, from a political standpoint and in terms of the people’s perception of the presidential house as the place from which decisions are issued, al Jeradi said, “The public should not exempt the ministers and government from their responsibility. When we exonerate ministers or other officials and continuously harp on the president [president’s decisions] then that would be an inaccurate position, even if the decisions are effectively issued from the presidential house.”
Tareq al Shami, head of media of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) commented on the appropriation of the public square in Sanaa by saying, “the whole state is a public square of freedom. Anyone familiar with the Yemeni society’s customs will know that freedom of speech, among other freedoms, permeates in all fields and is practiced on a daily basis even in the ‘maqayil’ sessions (the daily qat-chewing sessions).
Al Shami told Asharq Al-Awsat, “It is the right of every segment of society to express its views and positions whether opposite cabinet headquarters or in any other place.”
Regarding the GPC’s position towards these demands, al Shami confirmed that, “the GPC’s political and electoral programs allow for the transition into a free and open media, however it must be organized in a manner that abides by the law and guarantees the rights of the personnel working in the various fields of media, in addition to the rights of society as well.”
“There is a project to amend the press law currently being examined by the Ministry of Information, which is undertaking studies in collaboration with various press institutions in the country. I believe the matter requires further study so that it may bring about media institutions capable of running these [oppositional] ‘platforms’ through audiovisual media outlets among others,” he added.
With the developments currently unfolding in Yemen, from the overcrowding in the southern provinces to the escalation of protests held by the opposition in various provinces over a number of issues, the Freedom Square experience has become the focal point of these demands.
But the experience had an even farther reach than that; the same name was given to a public square in Aden and another public square in Lahij, once known as Celebrations Square, it has now been renamed “Freedom Square”. All over Yemen, the idea seems to have taken on the dimensions of a trend.
Ali Saif Hassan, director of Yemen’s Political Development Forum, an independent think-tank said, “These public squares are an expression of a response to a need among the political and social forces and the civil society organizations.”
He pointed out that, “The political parties started to use these squares only after civil society organizations, media personnel and unemployed citizens, among others, had started to stage protests there. It was only after that that the political parties joined them. He continued to say that, “This square was originally established based on the needs of civil society, and is consistent with the nature of these organization’s activities.”
Hassan views that, “popular democracy and the democracy inherent in civil society are undoubtedly in need of public squares such as these,” adding, “they [the demonstrators] do not have places to accommodate such activities. The street is the most effective place for them to get their demands across to the authority and to the decision-makers, and the media. These public places are located closer to the people they seek to reach, particularly the media.”
He added: “The Yemeni government’s offer to allocate a ‘Hyde Park’ area where the opposition can hold their activities is simply a joke…”
In response to the question as to whether these activities that take place in public squares are only a transient phenomenon or if they will become a tradition to be followed, Hassan said that the sit-ins, “will become a heritage that will evolve,” and added that, “these activities, by virtue of belonging to civil society, aim to reform the reality on the ground. As such, these places will remain a part of tradition that will continue to evolve with more superior traditions.”
According to oppositional political activist and lawyer Yehia Ghaleb Shuaib, Aden’s Freedom Square got its name, “because it fits with the protestors’ rhetoric and the citizens in the south who demand freedom. They have been repressed, marginalized and alienated outside of the framework of Yemeni unity,” he said.
The lawyer added, “there are restrictions imposed on those who want to carry out protest activities in Aden’s Freedom Square after demonstrators from the military succeeded in staging protests last June and July.” He added that following the success of these demonstrations, the military had surrounded the square in Aden and tightened security around the area, forbidding access onto the street.
Shuaib said, “The difference between Hyde Park in London and Aden’s ‘Hyde Park’ is that demonstrators in London would not be detained, whereas in Yemen, political activists are arrested. That is the democratic differential.”
Founder and Chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains (WJC) Tawakol Karman told Asharq Al-Awsat, “It would be very good if Freedom Square were to become a platform for all activities that demand rights and freedoms, and that is effectively what it has become today.”
However, she added, “some people who come to the square during our demonstrations are a group of intelligence officers (political security and national security) and their only aim is to restrain us…but we do not concern ourselves with them.”
“The public square belongs to everyone, but they abuse us every time and that is a restriction of freedom and a violation of the people who stage peaceful protests.”