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YEMEN: Selling Freedom Tea at Change Square

Yazeed Kamaldien

SANA’A, Mar 22 2011 (IPS) - Popcorn, peanuts, protest posters, tons of tea and the ubiquitous Yemeni flag dominate the anti-government sit-in demonstration outside Sana’a University as entrepreneurs have sought to meet the demands of protesters.

Freedom tea for sale as Che Guevara makes an appearance.  Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien/IPS

Freedom tea for sale as Che Guevara makes an appearance. Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien/IPS

Police attacks on demonstrators since mid-February have not brought an end to the protest. Thousands have formed an angry mass that has vowed not to move from their protest site in the capital Sana’a until President Ali Abdullah Saleh leaves office.

The anti-government protests started in mid-January when Tunisia’s grassroots movement successfully ousted that country’s leader and set the Arab world ablaze.

By mid-February, Yemen’s citizens launched sit-in protests across the country. Outside Sana’a University, where student-led demonstrations encouraged more to take to the streets, tents have been set up. Some have brought along televisions and get electricity from neighbouring shops in the streets where they are sleeping.

But the most striking aspect of this somewhat festive atmosphere is the countless creative capitalists – although small time compared to most – that have identified protester needs.

Gassiem al-Shi’ri, 13, sells a variety of badges bearing the Yemeni flag. Protesters might not be happy with their leadership but they still love their country.

“I’ve been here since the first day of the protests. I earn between YR1,000 (four dollars) and YR2,000 (eight) per day,” said al-Shi’ri.

That is a decent income for someone living in the poorest Arab country, where conservative figures indicate that 40 percent of its 24 million people live in poverty. This is the sort of statistic that citizens hope will change once Saleh, who has ruled the country for 32 years, steps down.

“Irhal, irhal, irhal. (Leave, leave, leave.) God willing, the president will leave this country,” shouted al-Shi’ri when asked where the protests would lead.

A number of other vendors were also selling the Yemeni flag reincarnated as scarves and in various sizes. Vendors also sell A4-sized colour paper print-outs depicting anti-Saleh messages. Some mock the leader and others depict deadlier messages; one shows a number of guns pointed at Saleh’s head.

Tea remains the most popular bestseller though. Yemenis enjoy tea and chats, and one tea seller put up a sign to promote his brand: ‘Freedom Tea’.

Tea seller Khaled Khaderi closed his clothing stall to set up a tea shop in the area that protesters have called ‘Change Square’ to reflect their movement.

“This is the taste of freedom,” said Khaderi as he passed cups of tea to customers. “I used to sell clothes near Sana’a University but decided to sell tea so that I could make more money. People didn’t come here to buy clothes. They want tea.”

Other entrepreneurs regularly stationed near Sana’a University, generally a transport and business hub, have also seen an increase in income. Ahmed Saleh who fixes shoes works on the pavement and said that he has been fixing more shoes since the protests started.

Najeeb al-Badri and Shayf Bin Ali said their Qat business has also grown. Qat is the mild narcotic plant that Yemenis chew for pleasure.

A young businessman who recorded the highest sales jump is Dhayfallah al-Sirma. He moved his makeshift mobile popcorn unit from the gates of the Old City in Sana’a to the protest site. He sells popcorn for less than YR100 (about 20 US cents) a packet.

“My income has increased by 80 percent a day,” he said as the show of sloganeering, chanting and politicking continued all around him.

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