Change Square has changed, but not for the better. The tent city outside Sana’a University that was the focal point of year-long protests against Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh did not fold up after the dictator was finally ousted at the end of February. On the contrary, many of the tents have taken on a sense of permanence, with plastic and canvas giving way to cinder-block walls. Where youthful revolutionaries chanted anti-Saleh slogans and braved assaults by the dictator’s troops and thugs, vendors now flog shoes, toys and replica soccer jerseys. A hard core of protesters remain, but with an elected President — Abd Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi — now running this impoverished nation, their protestations, for the most part, get little attention.
Only one protester continues to make waves: Tawakul Karman, who won (with two other women) the Nobel Peace Prize last year and became one of the Arab Spring’s most recognizable faces. Her tent in the middle of Change Square continues to attract a steady stream of foreign dignitaries, local admirers and all manner of Yemenis seeking her guidance on how to get their grievances heard. Karman often sleeps in her tent, going home “when I miss my kids too much.”
Why’s Karman still in the square? After all, she endorsed the election that brought Hadi, uncontested, to office. Why not now go home for good, and let him get on with governing the country? Because, she says, “the revolution is still going on.”
Saleh may have stepped down, but the deal that brought his 44-year rule to an end, brokered by Gulf Arab states, protects him from prosecution, to the frustration of the Change Square faithful. The dictator’s son and nephew continue to command large parts of the Yemeni military, ensuring the family’s continued influence over the country. “As long as even one of his family remains in government, they will threaten the political transition and destabilize the country,” Karman says. “All the members of the old regime have to go, and there should be no delay.”
She worries that Hadi, who has won praise for his first few months in office, lacks the will and stamina to thoroughly clear the Augean Stables of Yemeni politics. “He is a good man, and, with him, we have the legitimacy of the revolution,” she says. “But he cannot be successful until he removes all the Salehs.” To those who say that’s just impractical, that Hadi’s being politically pragmatic in strengthening his own position before taking on the remnants of the old regime, Karman says, in effect, fiddlesticks. “Taking things slowly will only weaken [Hadi], and strengthen those who want to continue the way things were before,” she says. “The President’s legitimacy and strength will lessen with time.”
That’s not the only unfinished business of the revolution, she adds. Those who continue to gather at the square hope to keep up pressure on the government to tackle Yemen’s chronic problems: corruption, massive unemployment, poor governance. They see themselves as a bulwark against reactionary and extremist groups that might want to hijack the process of writing the country’s new constitution. Karman also hopes her continued presence will remind the rest of the Gulf states and the U.S. that they can and should do more to help Yemen find its feet after decades of misrule. “The world has a role to play here, not to give us money but to help in our development,” she says.
Karman is coy about her own future. Elections for a new parliament are expected in 2014, and she says “the revolutionaries” — the young, mostly secular Yemenis who led the protests against Saleh — will not repeat the mistakes of Egyptian and Tunisian youth groups, which failed to evolve into political organizations and lost out to Islamist parties in elections. But Karman is herself member of Islah, the Yemeni Islamist group that is, if anything, to the political right of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although she has clashed with the party’s old guard, she hasn’t given up her membership. “If a day comes when I have to choose between Islah and the goals of the revolution, I will choose the revolution,” she says. “But that is not necessary now.”