Sana'a University says: Enough!
Student protests against armed security forces date back to 2009
Sana'a University students hoping that the withdrawal of armed Houthis from campus spelled the end of arms on campus have been sorely disappointed and have resumed protests--this time against state security forces.
Students have been protesting the presence of armed men on campus since March 2009, when a dispute between a student and a guard left Saleh Hatim, the student, dead. The quarrel started when the guard would not let the student drive his vehicle into campus, and escalated. Students renewed their protests in 2011, when soldiers of the now-dissolved First Armored Division took control of the university during Yemen's Arab Spring uprising and turned it into military barracks.
A week following the Sept. 21 takeover of the capital by Houthis, an armed Shia-Zaydi group traditionally based in Yemen's northern governorate of Sa'ada, the campus of Sana'a University was yet again patrolled by armed men. And again students took to the streets on and around campus to protest the armed Houthi presence there.
Grievances against the Houthis ranged from their mere presence--on principle, students don't want any arms on campus--to accusations against the movement of harassment.
"Houthis at the campus told me to put on an abaya [a long, black gown worn over clothing] like my female colleagues. I told them it was none of their business, and they then threatened to strip me naked if I did not comply," said Rasha Abdulkafi, a university student who wears a long coat that reaches the top of her knees.
These days, students arriving at campus are met with armed security personnel from the Public Security Forces, which fall under the orders of the Ministry of Interior.
The Houthis agreed to withdraw from campus on Dec. 10, following weekly protests by students. In a theatric move, they laid all their guns on the ground that day, signaling their compliance with the students' demands.
"We were at the university to protect students against any attacks and also to make sure the educational process runs smoothly," Ali Abdulrahman, a member of the Houthi popular committee that was tasked to guard the gates of the university, told the Yemen Times in December. "However, we decided to leave after several protests by the students. The university's presidency should take responsibility [for security]."
The students demanded that the university hire private, unarmed security to protect the campus.
On Dec. 10, the same day the Houthis agreed to withdraw, Sana'a University signed a contract with Stallion Security and Safety Services Ltd, a private security firm, according to Khaled Obadi, the operations officer at Stallion. Guards from the private company were present on campus the following day.
Students rejoiced at the victory, but it was short-lived.
"We thought our demands for non-government affiliated security was finally met and that we could move on to press for other demands, including urgent elections for the Sana'a University Students Union," said Mohammed Abdulmoghni, a member of the coordinating committee of the Student Movement to Reject the Presence of Armed Men.
Three days after private, unarmed guards were placed at the five entrances to Sana'a University, they were removed from their posts and placed inside the campus. Armed security forces from the Public Security Force now guard the gates to the campus.
"We want neither armed militias nor soldiers at campus. We have been saying this since 2009, but nothing has happened," Abdulmohgni added.
The decision to relocate private guards from the gates to inside campus came after Sana'a University President Abdulhakeem Al-Sharjabi met with Sana'a Security Chief Abdulrazaq Al-Ashwal on Dec. 11, a day after the university signed a contract with Stallion. According to the state-run Saba News Agency, the outcome of the meeting was that security personnel would now guard the entrances to the university.
"The security apparatus has a responsibility to protect students, and this action falls under that mandate," Saba reported Al-Ashwal as saying.
The Yemen Times asked the Stallion representative, Obadi, why the university initially agreed to place private guards at the entrances, only to withdraw them and place them inside.
Obadi said that main entrances of government institutions should be guarded by soldiers or police, not private security. He declined to answer further questions about the initial agreement.
The Yemen Times made repeated attempts to contact the office of the university's president. Phone calls were not returned. A Yemen Times reporter went to the office, but the clerical staff were on strike demanding higher salaries.
The sheikh and local community leader of the neighborhood, Lutf Abdulaziz Awad, speculated that the guards were removed because students are more likely to respect soldiers and listen to their instructions, and that managing that many students was too difficult of a task for the private guards.
"Yemenis show more respect for people in military uniform and also feel safe when they see them managing the security situation," Awad said.
There's another twist to the story of who is guarding Sana'a University--students and staff allege that the Houthis are back on campus.
Two Stallion guards stationed near the College of Economics at the university said they and their colleagues work daily--except Fridays--from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"All students leave by 5 p.m. and so do we," said one of the guards, who declined to be named. "The university has its own internal security and security force and this force replaces us when we leave at 5 p.m.
Students say that this "internal security force" is actually the Houthis. The guards declined to provide any more details.
"It's the same Houthi gunmen who used to guard the university's gates. They haven't withdrawn, they return after 5 p.m," said Abdulmoghni. Adel Haza, a professor in the Engineering College of the university, confirmed that many of the men guarding the campus after 5 p.m. are the same Houthis who guarded the campus before the Houthis announced their withdrawal.
"We pass so many official and unofficial checkpoints throughout the city, but we don't want to see them inside the campus. We want to see private security guards and we want to feel that the university isn't involved in the political conflict," said Haza.
Security on campus has changed hands between government forces, armed Houthis, and private security firms. (Photo by Mohammed Al-Emad)
Copyright Yemen Times. All rights reserved. Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc. ( Syndigate.info ).