Qat addiction may stem Yemen protests

Thu Feb 10, 2011 2:12am EST
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By Khaled Abdullah

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's opposition has drawn tens of thousands of people to the streets to rally against three decades of autocratic rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but by noon the protesters quietly vanish.

Many head straight from the streets to the souk, or market, to buy bags stuffed with qat, the mild stimulant leaf that over half of Yemen's 23 million people chew daily, wiling away their afternoons in bliss, their cheeks bulging with wads of qat.

"After I chew I can't go out. When I chew qat, the whole world is mine. I feel like a king," said Mohammed al-Qadimi, a student who has attended Yemen rallies but said it would be hard to motivate himself to protest all day.

Yemeni activists who organized an anti-government "Day of Rage" last week drew their biggest crowds yet in rallies seen as a barometer of readiness to transform protests in this Arabian Peninsula state into an Egypt-style uprising.

Yemen is already teetering on the brink of failed statehood, and analysts say its volatile mix of domestic conflicts, entrenched poverty and an increasingly bold al Qaeda wing could make it ripe for upheaval.

But popular revolts like those that toppled Tunisia's leader and threaten Egypt's president need momentum. The Yemen protesters' midday departures cast doubt on whether Yemenis are ready to mount a sustained revolt that would be needed to topple Saleh from the leadership of the Arab world's poorest country.

Yemenis are not known for being passive. Nationals disgruntled with their government have kidnapped foreigners and locals, ambushed security forces and occupied state buildings to extract concessions. But for many, Qat time is sacrosanct.

"When we have protests, they quiet down quickly because of this Yemeni habit. Qat is a negative influence. Every afternoon people go chew qat and the protests don't last more than a few hours in the morning," journalist Samir Gibran said, as he sat chewing qat with friends. He said he only chews once a week.   Continued...

<p>A raisin vendor chews Qat, a green leaf which acts as a mild stimulant, as he sits at his stall in the Old Sanaa city January 19, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah</p>