The first thing I noticed when I walked into Tahrir square were the sticks. Cut into two foot lengths, about an inch-wide, and stripped of bark, they were suspiciously uniform. These were not sticks that people had just happened to pick up on their way to the protest. These were sticks that someone had taken the care to manufacture and distribute.
As the conflict heated up in Egypt, a motley crew of Yemeni protesters (a mix of the organized opposition moment and a smattering of angry youth) called for a “day of rage” in Sanaa’s own Tahrir square. Wary of the opposition establishing a symbolic kinship with Cairo, Saleh decided to set up camp in Tahrir himself. Tents went up overnight, and the government bussed in pro-Saleh tribesmen to stay in them.
And there they remain. Say what you want about Ali Abdullah Saleh, but the man appears to know what he’s doing. Yemen’s Tahrir square has remained calm. I was having dinner nearby, and so, for once, (not hearing gunshots, explosions, or really much noise at all) I decided to go check things out for myself.
An armed guard at the entrance to the square looked half-heartedly through my purse, squished it between his hands (presumably checking for any gun- or grenade-shaped objects), and then waved me through. They spent a little more time with the Yemeni friend who was with me, patting him down and checking his I.D., and let him in too. He was wearing a tight t-shirt and slacks. I was in a Moroccan djellaba. In a crowd of Yemeni men wearing traditional robes, keffiyas, and wrap-around skirts, we both stood out.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” I asked my friend.
“With what? With people thinking I’m a translator for an American spy?” I was thinking journalist. Which in the minds of certain people is probably more or less the same thing. But yes. That’s what I was worried about. “It’s okay,” said my friend.
The atmosphere in the square felt less like a “protest” than a rally. As a friend of mine rightly noted, “how can you have a pro-government protest?” There were several large tents around the square. One was set up as a mafraj (a sort of Arab living room, with ground-level sofas around the walls of a big open space). In another, men were sitting on rows of folding chairs, looking out at the square. Someone was selling ears of corn off of a wheeled cart. Most of the activity was focused around a central stage, where a man with a megaphone was making a speech for the benefit of the protestors and a single video camera (my guess would be official Yemeni TV, though I don’t really know). I couldn’t really catch what he was saying, but I don’t think it was particularly interesting. One of the young men onstage was wearing a large afro/clown wig painted the red, black, and white of the Yemeni flag. A nearby truck was handing out bread and water (though to whom I have no idea).
Word on the street has it that the government gives its protestors a daily qat ration. It seems certain that some money has changed hands. There was a man nearby selling small Yemeni flags and (unautographed) pictures of Saleh. Two young men (maybe 13 or 14) came by and gave us tiny pins that say “unity,” and have pictures of Saleh and some other guy on them. The type is so small that I can’t figure out who it is.
Nowhere, however, could I locate the source of the sticks. A Western friend who was with me said that the day before someone had seen children with wheelbarrows full of the things handing them out. We had a discussion about why the government would pass out sticks. What we came up with was that government had asked the protestors to leave their guns at home, and so they were handing out sticks as a kind of compensation. My Yemeni friend thought that a lot of the stick-wielders were probably plainclothes policeman.
Of course, Tahrir isn’t really where the action is. Which, I suppose, is kind of the point. The government is keeping a symbolically powerful location on lockdown. The anti-government protests (which, increasingly, are much more like protests and much less like rallies), are tending to cluster around the old Sanaa university. In the next few days, we’ll see how and if those sticks get used.