Yemen Protesters Cling To Hope During Bleak Ramadan
SANAA (Reuters) – As the rain pours down on their battered tents, tens of thousands of Yemenis gather for a feast to celebrate Ramadan, defying increasingly miserable conditions as they pray that the holy Muslim month will revive a flagging protest movement.
They have staged a sit-in for six months in "Change Square," near the University of Sanaa where protests to end the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh began.
But the veteran leader is still in power, albeit in Saudi Arabia, where he was removed for treatment after being badly hurt in a June bomb attack in the Yemeni capital.
Protesters are clinging to hope that they can revive low spirits in their camps with communal meals to break their daily Ramadan fast, as well as more rallies and marches during a period when large crowds head to the mosque to pray, offering natural gathering opportunities.
They have their work cut out.
Outside the festive atmosphere of the square residents trudging through flooded streets wonder if the struggle against Saleh's rule has been worth the price in a country where more than 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
Food costs in the Arab world's poorest country are skyrocketing, fuel is scarce, and electricity lights the capital Sanaa for barely an hour a day as Yemen's already weak economy and infrastructure crumble.
"Our situation before was fine. They wanted a revolution, and now petrol is 175 rials (72 cents) a liter when before it was 70. Our electricity used to go out only one or two hours a day, now we barely have electricity for an hour and a half," grumbled Sanaa taxi driver Mohammed.
"You can't help but wonder if things weren't better before."
But to protesters, the very fact that they have remained in the streets despite bloody attacks on their demonstrations and fierce clashes between the government and armed opposition groups is reason enough to celebrate.
They vow to increase the intensity of their protests, mirroring similar plans by protesters in Syria.
"Ramadan will only make us stronger," said protester Ali al-Khoulani, as he huddled inside his tent, waiting to break the daily fast. "We have all become one family and I expect the triumph of our revolution this month because this is the month of victory for Muslims."
Foreign powers fear protests will push fractious Yemen, also plagued by regional insurgencies and an active local al Qaeda wing, into a failed state on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, home to the world's biggest oil reserves.
Washington and Riyadh continue to back a Gulf-brokered power transition, which Saleh has backed out of three times and has instead vowed to return to Yemen and lead a dialogue.
In a Ramadan greeting to his countrymen, he reiterated the call to dialogue -- the opposition has ignored his offer, sticking to the streets.
Before praying and breaking the fast, protester Zakaria Abdulfattah and his friends volunteer to stack cement blocks to raise the tents above rising waters.
"The rains won't be able to bother us, just like the regime has not been able to force us out of this square," he said, as thousands lined up to pray, kneeling and rising in unison.
Protesters say they've prepared for Ramadan meals by gathering donations from businessmen and charities, as well as scraping together their own savings.
At local restaurants, volunteers stir massive metal pots of vegetable soup and prepare large platters of rice, lamb and chicken while protesters break their fast with dates.
The cost of those dates has shot up some 50 percent this Ramadan, as has sugar to make traditional sweets. Even simple necessities such as bread have risen 30 percent.
Some residents in Sanaa say despite their frustration, they blame the government for economic conditions, which had been deteriorating even before protests. They accuse officials of raising prices to increase resentment of the protesters.
"They're trying to turn the people's anger over living conditions against those calling for the regime to leave, instead of allowing resentment to build because the government couldn't meet our needs," said Waddah Shaibany, a businessman in Sanaa.
For many protesters, it was exasperation with the faltering economy that drove them to the streets -- a third of Yemen's 23 million people were already suffering chronic hunger. Yemenis faced soaring unemployment of around 40 percent due to rampant corruption.
But Sanaa resident Mohammed al-Awadi said this Ramadan will be incomparably bleaker than past years.
During Ramadan, families normally gather daily to break their fast over large meals in front of televisions playing new soap operas made especially for the occasion. Instead, Awadi and his family will share a sparse meal in the dark.
"I have eight people to feed and it is so expensive we've been forced to give up a lot of things for Ramadan like sweets or meat," he said. "We'll barely manage to buy the basic necessities."
(Writing by Erika Solomon, Editing by Sitaraman Shankar)
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