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.
Yemen, vital to the United States in its fight against al Qaeda, faces economic conditions often worse than those that helped spur revolt in Tunisia and Egypt. Economists put unemployment at 35 percent or higher, while a third of Yemenis face chronic hunger.
Qat, Yemen’s top cash crop, ravages the economy and sucks dry dwindling water resources, economists say. Saleh launched a campaign against the bitter-tasting narcotic leaf a decade ago, but the population still spends millions of dollars a day on it.
“I’m going to the souk right now to buy qat. I’ll have lunch, and then I’ll chew qat with friends,” said Ahmed Saleh, as he left an opposition protest. “In Yemen, people protest in the morning, but in the afternoon they go to chew qat.”
Saleh, hoping to avert more unrest at home while the Arab world is in turmoil, promised last week to step down when his term ends in 2013 and vowed not to pass power on to his son, the latest in a string of concessions to the opposition.
He had already tried to preserve loyalty in military and government ranks by raising wages by around $47 a month, no small sum for a country where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
The concessions have not halted protests, but rallies have been sporadic and have lacked follow-through. Yemenis can bring out the numbers. They just can’t seem to keep them there.
It took a month of daily protests to force Tunisia’s president to flee, and hundreds of thousands of protesters continue to stage relentless demonstrations late into the night trying to push out Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak.
“Qat time is from one to two in the afternoon. It’s not possible for a protester to use that time for something else. For him, qat time is the most important,” said Marwan al-Qalisi, an accountant in Sanaa, his cheek bulging with qat.
Qat, which sucks up around 40 percent of Yemen’s rapidly dwindling water resources, plays such a large role in the country’s economy that the central bank calculates indicators both with and without qat. The plant accounts for 6 percent of Yemen’s GDP and a third of its agricultural GDP.
The World Bank estimates that Yemenis spend a tenth of their income on the plant and lose about 25% of potential work hours to qat chewing.
Economists are torn about how to tackle Yemen’s qat addiction, which can be a blessing as much as a curse.
In the long term, it hinders much needed growth and economic diversification. But in the short term, qat is a coping mechanism for poor Yemenis: The drought resistant plant can produce a crop within two weeks, guaranteeing farmers a return on investment and offering one out of every 7 Yemenis a job.
Some analysts say qat addiction is not a serious barrier to mass protest in Yemen, and young activists say customary qat-chewing gatherings play the same role as social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook elsewhere in the region.
“Sure we use Facebook like kids in other countries, but a lot of the protests that were organized, students planned at qat sessions. Qat has a positive role in political mobilization,” Fakhr al-Azb, a 23-year old university student, said.
Most Yemeni men spend half the day chewing qat, even at work. After work, many gather on floor cushions to chew and mull over their favorite subject: Yemen’s political woes.
They have plenty to work with. Yemen is struggling to suppress a southern separatist revolt that often turns violent, and to cement a shaky truce with northern Shi’ite rebels, all while trying to quash al Qaeda’s Yemen-based arm.
But as much as Yemenis may talk about politics, they have yet to translate that into a popular movement, said Nasser Arrabyee, a political analyst and writer.
“Yemenis are known for being short of breath,” he said.
While some days, Yemenis said they had to leave protests for qat breaks, at other times they blamed breathtaking television footage of Egypt protests, which glued them to their seats.
Yet Yemen’s Islamist party Islah, which played a key role in organizing protests and is the country’s biggest opposition group, said qat was not the reason for short protests.
“It’s not the time for long protests yet. These protests were a message in the first stage. Later will come the long protests,” said Mohammed al-Saadi, the party’s undersecretary.
Some Yemenis remain unconvinced.
“Nothing quiets people like qat. Look at what they’re doing in Egypt,” said aluminum worker Ahmed al-Hazoura, as he carefully selected qat branches from a Sanaa shop. “If it wasn’t for qat, everyone here would be in the streets protesting.”
Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Angus MacSwan