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Is A Protest Camp Still Needed In Yemen?


In Yemen's capital, Sana'a, a sprawling tent city is beginning to be dismantled. It was home to thousands of protesters for more than a year. Known as Change Square, it came to look more like Change Mile as street after street became packed with demonstrators and their makeshift homes. Kelly McEvers reported from Yemen during last year's uprising and she went back and sent this report about the changes at Change Square.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: In some ways, Yemen's version of the Arab Spring has been the most, well, unique. The country's dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, did step down after nearly a year of protests. But instead of rushing to elections like in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemen is now in a transitional period overseen by Saleh's former vice president. Saleh's cronies are being purged from the military and elections will be held in a year and a half.

Still, despite the seeming success of the revolution, there's the question of what to do with Change Square. Some say it's time to leave and get on with building a country, and others say it's time to stay until every last demand is met.

Yes, we're here in the main portion of the square where the stage is, where all the speeches were made. But it's still pretty lively. I mean, it still feels just the way it was the last time I was here. There are food stalls and people playing ping-pong, and people on their motorcycles, and lots of commerce. And everybody has got a different agenda and a sign and a poster, so at least this part hasn't changed.

That's in the middle of Change Square where the protest first started, but around the edges it's coming apart.

On one end of the square, men have clearly made a home out of their protest tents. They're from a poor area outside the capital. They say they defected from the army to join the protests, now they're without jobs. They say political groups tied to the government are offering to pay them to leave and go back home.

Forty bucks for a revolution, they say, it's insulting. On the other end of Change Square what once was a sea of tents with electricity lines, satellite dishes, and concrete foundations - tents that looked like they weren't going anywhere - have all but disappeared.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Wow, yeah. So this was a huge, long stretch of tents and they're just completely gone. People said they used bulldozers and dump trucks to haul away the rubble. It looks like that's possible, right? There's just...


MCEVERS: ...a few piles of rubble. But I mean, it looks like it's been cleared out.

AL-MUSLIMI: And now it's back to what it was two years ago, a bus station.

MCEVERS: Back to what it was two years ago, a bus station.

The voice you hear is Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi. We later stopped to buy water. Farea asks the shop owner what he thinks should happen to the people at Change Square. He comes out to tell me about it.

AL-MUSLIMI: And I was like, do you think they should go. He was like, well, if they think they're done, they should go.

MCEVERS: And that's kind of what you think, right?

AL-MUSLIMI: You have to transform from the revolutionary act into the political act. And they have to be organized. There is one year and a half for upcoming elections, have to work hard for that. I think the revolution act is a lot different from political act. You're damaging sometimes when it's revolution. When it's political act...

MCEVERS: You're building.

AL-MUSLIMI: ...you're building.

MCEVERS: Because it took Yemen so long to get rid of their dictator, Farea says protestors actually had time to start doing that building; to get to know each other in the square and plan for a new country. Now, he says, they should take it to the next level - form political parties, assemble policy platforms, select candidates for the election. Some of this work has begun but it's messy.

At a recent meeting about an upcoming national dialogue nearly turned into a fistfight when supporters of the old regime showed up and heckled. Many protestors have refused to even attend the dialogue. Farea says there's a big danger if this fighting gets in the way of the real work.

AL-MUSLIMI: Because what will happen, I think, if we don't start thinking positive steps, it's all the same traditional powers will go back and they will reorganize themselves.

MCEVERS: And co-opt the revolution, as he says the Islamists have done in Tunisia and Egypt. Still, Farea says some core people should remain in the square. What better way, he says, to remind even a new government, we took you down once, we can do it again.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Sana'a. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.