Students in Yemen’s capital are mobilizing to demand the end of the military presence on their campus. Their demand is proof that the people are by no means satisfied with the results of their hard-fought for revolution.
Holding colorful posters and marching besides a large megaphone, a group of young men and women were chanting for freedom. These protests symbolize the new wave of the revolution, one that is not satisfied with only a change in leadership, but demands comprehensive regime change.
“No to state security. No to the military. Free our university!” students chant in Sanaa University.
The first march was organized by the student branch of the Yemeni Socialist Party on Sunday September 17 but many students participated, including those not affiliated to any party. Since then protests have continued regularly, joined by students of various backgrounds, all rejecting the continued occupation of the university.
This call is directed at the First Armored Division (FAD), commanded by General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a one-time confidant of former president Saleh. On 21 March 2011, following the brutal sniper attack on peaceful protesters that resulted in at least 45 deaths, Ali Muhsin began siding with the protesters.
Since then a large number of FAD soldiers have been deployed around Change Square – the heart of the revolutionary movement – on the premises of protection. The square is located adjacent to the university, and hence the FAD have easy access to the educational facility.
Pro-democracy protesters at the time had mixed feelings about this move. From a strategic standpoint, it meant a formal split in the Yemeni military, which reduced possibility of a complete crush of the uprising. Some felt, however, that Ali Muhsin’s past might serve as proof that his involvement was not intended to support change, but was rather a political move for personal gains. Nevertheless, the majority accepted the decision and welcomed him chanting “Welcome, welcome FAD, and their leader Ali Muhsin.”
The FAD is still in control of the university, despite the fact that Change Square is no longer closed off, and numerous streets have opened to traffic. In addition, the protesters are no longer under direct threat from the former regime, as the new transitional government is composed of former regime and the traditional opposition (the Joint Meeting Party coalition).
Despite that, some still feel the need for protection. “I understand that they should not be here but lets be honest, the situation is still dangerous these days, and we need them to protect the students,” said Sami, a father of two, and a protester who was camped in Change Square. “Also, many scandalous things happen between boys and girls on campus. Who will control that if they are not here?” he added.
Soldiers from the FAD seem to agree that their role is merely protection, and are surprised to hear the student sentiment against them. “They are liars, there are no soldiers inside the campus, only at the gates. We are here to protect them,” said Mohammed, a soldier from the FAD who is based at the eastern entrance of Sanaa University. “Those protesting are infiltrators who have an agenda and want to create chaos. They are just politicizing this because they are socialists,” he added.
Students rebuff this statement saying that the soldiers are seen in many different parts of the campus, and not just at the gates. They allege to have seen soldiers train, to have identified military barricades and tanks in the Olympic center, in addition to two battalions behind the architecture college. They claim that photos and videos, such as this oneof soldiers training inside the university support these allegations.
Numerous students have complained of soldiers beating and detaining them. On 26 September 2012 three students were violently arrested by the FAD. “I was arrested and beaten and taken to a room inside the university. They only let me go after the students almost stormed the building,” said Hani al-Guneid, a fourth year student in the Faculty of Arts.
Guneid was beaten again on October 6 by unknown men as he was walking out of the university.
Students have complained of feeling intimidated by the soldiers at the gate. Asmahan al-Qadi, a first year agriculture student said she feels stressed every time she goes to university. “More than once the soldiers have caused me to be at least half an hour late for class due to questioning and searching my bags. When I arrive late, professors don’t understand.”
Abuse From FAD soldiers is not a new phenomenon. During the uprising, FAD soldiers beat up and detained many independent activists who criticized either al-Islah political party (the most powerful party in the opposition coalition) or the FAD and placed them in private prisons.
The mother of a current student said she is protesting for the future of her children. “We suffer from oppression and injustice at the hands of the military – even the university wasn’t left alone.”
In addition to the direct violations, students denounce military interference in student affairs. This has taken many shapes, most notably the direct interference by the head of the FAD, Ali Muhsin, in the internal affairs of the university.
This was most notably felt when an alleged letter from Ali Muhsin to the president of Sanaa University was leaked. In this document, Ali Muhsin requested the admission of a student into the university, bypassing procedures. For many students, this exemplifies his power over the university administration.
For these reasons demonstrators continue to protest against the military presence in the university. Instead of soldiers under the command of the General, students suggested that guards affiliated to the university administration replace the military.
The students have articulated these demands and have formally contacted officials in the government, but up to date no response has been given.
Security control over education institutions has a history in Yemen. During Saleh’s 33 year reign, security agencies controlled many of the universities. Yet, the revolution’s calls for a civil state gave hope for a break from the military regime. Simultaneously, the military and security apparatus occupied a number of schools during the uprising. In a 46-page report entitled,Classrooms in the Crosshairs: Military Use of Schools in Yemen’s Capital, Human Rights Watch details the occupation of schools not only by the FAD, but also by other military forces such as the Republican Guards, headed by General Ahmed Ali Saleh, and opposition militias and armed groups.
“Before the revolution, we were demanding that security agencies leave the campus, and when the revolution began we had hope but now it’s even worse, we have the military here!” said third year student Mutassem Abdulsalam with a smirk.
Despite the students’ worries and disappointment at the status quo, these protests give some students hope that the essence of the revolution is still alive.
“The student revolution to kick the military out of the campus is the first step towards regaining popular consciousness,” said political analyst Mohammed al-Maqaleh, reviving hope in the hearts of the many disappointed revolutionaries.