Sana, Yemen – The protesters, arrayed in the tens of thousands under a blazing sun, pumped their fists in unison as they stood on the hot tarmac on Friday and chanted triumphantly, “The people, at last, have defeated the regime!”
But inside the ragged tents where they have camped out for months, the revolutionaries seem far less certain that they have won. WithYemen’s president recovering in Saudi Arabia from an attack last week on his palace mosque, the opposition seems increasingly divided about how to move forward, with some favoring far-reaching changes and others urging a more moderate political resolution endorsed by the United States and Yemen’s Arab neighbors.
Many are anxious that the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, will destroy their movement if he is allowed to return.
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“This is our chance, now Saleh is away,” said Muhammad al-Ha’et, an elderly lawyer, as he held up a gray umbrella against the sun, his voice full of anguish. “Yemen has always been run by the military. This is the first real revolution — the others were just military coups. We must not fail.”
As he spoke, another, more tentative chant broke out in the crowd: “The people must continue defeating the regime.”
Across town, Mr. Saleh’s supporters chanted their own slogans and held up his picture, as they have every Friday for months — though this time the numbers were a little low on both sides, perhaps because of the intense heat and the worsening scarcity of gasoline and water.
Most of those who form the original core of the protest movement say they want to preserve the transforming vision of civility and tolerance they have glimpsed in public squares since the uprising began, much like their peers in Egypt. They deeply oppose the political solution advocated by Saudi Arabia and the United States, which grants Mr. Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution and is likely to preserve more of the status quo.
They say the proposal — which Mr. Saleh repeatedly refused to sign before he was wounded last week — misses a golden opportunity for meaningful change and leaves Yemen’s direst problems unaddressed.
Their chief demand echoed across Sana and other Yemeni cities on Friday: “The people want a transitional council!”
It may not have the same ring as the old revolutionary mantras borrowed from Egypt. But for many protesters, creating a civilian council of technocrats, rather than the compromise political coalition called for by the Persian Gulf countries, represents the key to Yemen’s salvation.
“We will not accept to have a new president and the same system,” said Khaled al-Anisi, as he sat Indian-style on the floor of the tent where he has lived for the past four months, a cup of milky tea sitting uneasily on the lumpy rug beside him. “Oh, it is a long time, four months,” Mr. Anisi said with a weary smile, shifting his weight on the hard floor.
A human rights lawyer, Mr. Anisi has been one of the most passionate advocates of radical change, including prosecution of Mr. Saleh and a more democratic system of government. “The gulf countries are afraid of the influence of our revolution on their countries, so they want to engineer a political solution,” he said. “They want to kill our peaceful movement; this is their target.”
Mr. Anisi and his allies say they will name a transitional council in days, after first giving some of the country’s mainstream politicians a chance to join them. They then plan to call for huge demonstrations to press their cause, invoking “revolutionary legitimacy” as the grounds for abandoning precedent and the Yemeni Constitution.
A few protest leaders even hint at a more forceful tactic: urging the military leaders who have already defected to add their weight to the demands for a transitional council.
The more moderate opposition figures, including most of those with political experience, argue that a more gradualist and accommodating approach is the only sensible one, given Yemen’s many rival tribes and political factions and its violent past. If Mr. Saleh’s family members are not given immunity from prosecution, they could turn much more violent, the moderates say. The same thing could apply to the wider circle of the president’s political followers. Inclusion, the moderates say, is the sensible path forward.
The violence engendered by Iraq’s de-Baathification program, in which Saddam Hussein’s party members were punished and disenfranchised en masse, is invoked often here.
“What Yemen needs now is reconciliation,” said Muhammad Abu Lahoum, a former member of Mr. Saleh’s party who resigned to join the protests soon after they started. Mr. Abu Lahoum said he was optimistic about the current move toward a political settlement, which he called the second stage of the revolution.
With the country still deeply unsettled after the recent fighting in the capital between Mr. Saleh’s loyalists and opposition tribesmen, there is a desperate need for a compromise that will allow for a smooth transition, he said.
That transition, Mr. Abu Lahoum said, will create a peaceful opportunity for the hard-line protesters to begin pushing their more far-reaching goals: fighting corruption and regionalism, creating accountable state institutions, and building on the culture of nonviolence that was manifest in the sit-ins across Yemen in recent months. It will not happen all at once, he said, and the protesters must become reconciled.
“We’d like to see corruption drop from 99 percent to 40 percent,” he said. “We need to go from 80 percent lawless to 40 percent lawless. It takes time. But Yemenis are patient, as long as you are moving in the right direction.”
In the tents in the area the protesters have renamed Change Square, that kind of talk elicits scowls.
“We have seen a new Yemen in the making,” said one protester, who gave his name only as Murad. “This is a chance that will never come again.” Referring to the moderate transition plan advocated by Yemen’s Arab neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which would give Mr. Saleh and his family immunity, Murad said, “If the G.C.C. deal happens, the system will never change. It is just a management of the problem, not a resolution.”
One thing the entire opposition shares is the dread of Mr. Saleh’s return. “If Ali Abdullah Saleh returns and is president, people will blow themselves up,” said Tawakul Karman, another protest leader. “We will not care about our lives.”
The article “Opposition is Split on How to Reshape Yemen” originally appeared in The New York Times.