Protests against old city crackdown
Security forces entered the area at 8p.m., and according to merchants, dozens were hospitalized and at least 100 people were arrested. When asked, Office of Public Works and Highways General Manager Hamzah Al-Ashwal did not deny the accusation.
Recently appointed Sana’a Secretary of the Capital General Abdul-Qader Hilal chose to mark his first few days in office with a new campaign to enforce zoning laws.
Since the fall of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, merchants without the means to rent stalls to sell their goods have expanded beyond their former sidewalk spaces and are taking over more and more street space.
Political insecurity has exasperated what was an already severe unemployment, poverty and malnutrition crisis. Nearly half of the country is food insecure and one million children suffer from severe acute malnutrition.
“We have families, children, responsibilities,” Abdulrahman Abdulwasie, a 22-year-old street vendor at Bab Al-Yemen, said. “We have no other jobs, salaries—nothing. This is our only source of income. We can’t steal, what can we do?”
“People never did this under Saleh’s rule,” Al-Ashwal said. “Yes, Saleh is gone, but what kind of change do we want? The streets are dirty, overcrowded, traffic is bad. We have to move forward, not backward.”
Government Accusations Against Merchants
Military and security forces sent to enforce Halil’s orders accused the merchants of keeping guns hidden beneath their goods, according to numerous vendors. “They didn’t find any guns, but that didn’t stop them from taking all of our merchandise,” one seller said.
“We’re not terrorists,” Hamdan Al-Wasabi said. “We are regular Yemenis. The government made up these possession accusations so they would have an excuse to come in and enforce their new campaign. The security forces are accusing merchants of possessing weapons in order to appear as though we’re the cause of disorder in this city, and Mayor Hilal is here to bring order.”
“It’s just not true,” he said.
“They dragged me away, kicked me and beat me with the butt of their rifle,” Abdulwasie said.
According to numerous eyewitness accounts, Yemeni security forces used live ammunition, water cannons and tear gas. The Public Works Office neither confirmed nor denied the accusations.
“I don’t know; I wasn’t there,” Al-Ashwal said.
According to vendor Fadhel Ali, 35, soldiers confiscated all of his goods, attempted to extort him for YR 5,000 and beat him. He removed a bloodied bandage to reveal several fresh stitches.
“They can’t just come here and use live ammunition,” Ali said. “We’re not refugees … We are peaceful merchants trying to feed our families, and they attacked us without provocation.”
Merchants said more than 100 of them were arrested without charges—each forced to pay YR 6,000 before release.
“They arrested us for nothing,” said one demonstrator.
The Public Works Office manager was unaware of any arrests.
Demands and Demonstrations
“We will be outside of the secretary of the capital’s office for demonstrations until they agree to work with us,” Change Square activist and street merchant Nasser Saleh said.
Merchants said their goods were confiscated by soldiers without warning.
“They didn’t give us any time; they didn’t approach us and try to work with us to see what we could accomplish,” Saleh said. “They came and just imposed these rules on us, without considering our situations.”
While street sales have always been prohibited, the government allows people to sell goods during the month of Ramadan when, according to vendors, most of the year’s profits are made. Ramadan profits are necessary to pay off the year’s debts, several merchants said.
“It’s an order from the government, not the public works office,” Al-Ashwal said. “This campaign has nothing to do with Ramadan.”
Demonstrators want the government to allow merchants to continue selling their goods throughout Ramadan. Afterwards, they say, it will be necessary for the government to set up permanent retail spaces so the merchants can earn a living.
New Kid on the Weak
“This is Hilal’s first act as secretary of the capital?” asks Saleh.
The merchant said he thinks Hilal is trying to build a reputation for law and order but chooses to do it by picking on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
“We’ve been here a year and a half,” he said. “Why the sudden urgency?”
The law is the law, according to the Public Works Office, but the vendors, several of whom participated in the 2011 political uprising, want the government to put institutional changes in place before enforcing laws that would throw more people below the poverty line.
“If he wants to make a name for himself, why not start by weeding out corruption in his office and other ministries around the city,” Saleh said. “Is the man selling potato sandwiches on the street really his first priority?”