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Yemen's youth find their voice

From Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
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Yemen's youth lead protests
  • Yemen has 45% literacy and is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world
  • Activist says he wants to encourage others who are afraid to protest
  • President Ali Abdullah Saleh has promised to stand down at the next election

Sana'a, Yemen (CNN) -- Young people in Yemen's capital Sana'a and elsewhere across the country have been taking to the streets to demand government reforms.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, and nearly two thirds of the population is under the age of 30, making it a prime target for youth activism.

Opponents of Yemen's long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been demonstrating against him since the beginning of the year, part of the wave of popular protests that has been crashing over the Arab world.

Ala'a Jarban, a university student and online activist, involved in a demonstration in Sana'a, said: "We represent youth, we have different demands. Some people want their government to resign, some people don't, some people just want change.

"But we're all here to represent the youth in a civilized way, to demand in our way, and to encourage other people who are afraid to demonstrate."

Yemen has only 45% literacy and low levels of internet access, yet -- as elsewhere in the Middle East -- social media is becoming a key driver for change.

We're all here to represent the youth in a civilized way
--Ala'a Jarban, online activist
  • Yemen
  • Facebook Inc.
  • Twitter Inc.
  • Middle East

Jarban and his friends started a Facebook page to reflect the frustrations of their generation, which faces high youth unemployment.

In a country where expression of dissent is likely to lead to police crackdowns, Jarban and his friends know they are taking in a risk. Jarban said he will not be put off.

He said: "I told my mom, I don't mind if I get captured. I know that those young people that were with me, they're going to stand up for me.

"I know some social workers, they're very honest and they will stand up for me as well.

"If it will send a message for other people to go out and see that there are honest people trying to change and they're being captured by the government illegally, it will encourage them. So if it will encourage more people I don't really mind."

Atiaf Alwazir, one of Yemen's best known Twitter users, who tweets news about her country under the name Woman From Yemen, said social media can be a good tool, but motivated people need to drive change.

She said: "Twitter does not create a revolution, people do -- but at the same time, Twitter and Facebook are great tools, so they help people mobilize."

She added: "If something happens here -- for example, if there's a human rights violation, if some of the students were arrested -- in seconds, someone would post it on Twitter, re-tweet it to all these followers and it's like a tree with long branches. It just spreads, information spreads around the world in a matter of an hour."

According to Mohammed Abulahoum, a senior ruling party official, the government is beginning to hear the protests.

He said: "Today you have a new movement within the new generation in the Arab world and I hope that it will keep increasing and grow.

"There is a concern about our society, our country, our democracy, about our life, our standard of living, our sharing of power.

"So this is a new thing in the Arab world and this is something that brings hope. It is no longer only those thinkers that sit down in an office and make all these things and think on behalf of everybody. Now the information is coming from the bottom upward."

President Saleh, in power since 1978, has already said he will not seek re-election.

He pledged Thursday to bring a new constitution to a vote by the end of the year and transfer government power to an elected parliamentary system, although the opposition has dismissed the proposal as coming too late.