Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has awarded Khaled Al-Hammadi the International Press Freedom Award to honour his exemplary courage and passion for free expression. After he accepts the award in Toronto, Al-Hammadi, who works with the news outlet Al Jazeera English to report on Yemen’s uprising, will return to Yemen Friday, November 25 to rejoin those who demand the immediate resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“The ultimate goal is for President Saleh to step down,” said Al Hammadi, “but [the protesters] have already achieved many goals . . . like weakening the regime.” Al-Hammadi explained that the protests do not necessarily oppose the ruling party, but rather the nepotism that has marked the president’s rule of more than three decades.
Anti-Saleh protesters are not the only voices heard in the square. Since the demonstrations began nearly 10 months ago, two protest movements have formed on the streets of Sanaa: those who oppose President Saleh, and those who are loyal to him. In addition to the use of security forces responsible for a number of kidnappings, Al-Hammadi explained that the regime installed snipers to shoot at any protesters who attempt “to cross the front lines [into the loyalist camp],” and to deter onlookers from joining the protest.
“People are living in lawlessness,” said Al-Hammadi, who risks the danger of leaving the camp once per week to visit his family. The lack of security has prevented people from working and going to school, which has damaged the majority of private companies. This damage to the private sector, combined with an already devastating unemployment rate of 60 per cent, has collapsed the economy. “Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world,” said Al-Hammadi. “Yemen had money from oil . . . and tourism industries, but it went to the president’s pockets.”
“Elections have been used as a tool [by the Saleh regime] to show the international community that we are an international society,” said Al-Hammadi. The international community has paid less attention to the uprisings in Yemen than other countries in the region. Al-Hammadi warned that international pressure is needed in order to prevent the possibility of civil war. “If this happens,” said Al-Hammadi, “60 million weapons would be in the hands of civilians, tribesmen would have guns . . . and the country could become a haven for Al Qaeda and international terrorist groups.”
International media coverage of the corrupt regime and the resulting uprising has paled in comparison to those in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. Al-Hammadi attributes this to the difficulties that face foreign media outlets in a tightly censored country. “The regime has closed the doors of Yemen to the media,” said Al-Hammadi. Relations between the United States and Yemen’s neighbouring country Saudi Arabia have also prevented a demand for the president’s deposition, as both countries’ investments would be at risk if a new regime were to assume power.
“There are too many people for them [Saleh’s security forces] to storm the square,” said Al-Hammadi. Many university students join protesters in the afternoons to participate in daily programmes and to attend speeches. The square has become a forum for people to practice various skills including photography, journalism, and even medicine in makeshift hospitals. Small businesses have set up camp, and a number of artists may be seen rendering the situation in the square.
While nearly half the army has defected and a number of Saleh’s relatives have left their military and ministerial positions, unemployment continues to rise and provinces remain devastated by the regime’s use of rockets against the uprising population. According to Al-Hammadi, Yemen’s biggest challenge will be the building of functional economic and judicial systems while cultivating unity among Yemeni society. In the meantime, “the protesters must keep flowing the news of revolution and the region,” Al-Hammadi said.