The day after Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he would not run for president in upcoming elections, the main square in Yemen’s capital Sanaa became a base camp for supporters of the Yemeni government.
They carried posters of President Saleh, plastered their SUVs with posters of President Saleh, and ostentatiously declared their love for President Saleh. Men traveled into Sanaa in droves ahead of Thursday's demonstrations from areas known for progovernment sentiment to stage a counterprotest to a major opposition demonstration that had been dubbed Yemen’s “day of wrath.”
“I am here today to support the President Ali Abdullah Saleh. We want to force unity. The opposition wants to break the unity of this country,” says Saleh Mutayer, from the Khowlan region, while standing in front of a large white tent.
The gathering of counterprotesters, widely believed to have been brought in by the government, might look like an echo of the events in Cairo, where progovernment thugs battled antigovernment demonstrators in Tahrir Square. But many Yemenis say it's standard political maneuvering from Yemen's president to make it appear as if pro-Saleh regime sentiment is still strong.
Today’s rallies, with thousands participating on each side, come one day after Saleh responded to mounting political pressure by announcing a number of reforms in front of an emergency session of parliament. The session culminated in a promise that he would not run for president again in the upcoming 2013 election.
Progovernment demonstrators say they welcome Saleh's announcement as proof of democracy. But instead of quelling discontent, Saleh’s comments seem to have emboldened opposition leaders, weary of broken past promises.
More demonstrators came out than last week, and the protesters appeared much more riled up. Men shouted “God is great” following speeches delivered by opposition leaders and yelled in agreement to declarations that the regime’s corruption must come to an end.
The opposition has said it will stage a demonstration every Thursday until there is "real action" to enact government reforms. For now, they say they feel that Saleh’s statements are just lip service aimed at preventing mass uprising in Yemen.
“[Saleh’s speech] was repetitive. There are no practical steps in the direction of reform,” said lawyer Amin Al Khadiri at today’s protest. “His speech was a reaction to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt after the political earthquake that is going across the Middle East.”
Indeed, antigovernment demonstrators told the Monitor they prayed at today’s rally that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and all other dictators be removed from power.
“We cannot find work because there is corruption. There is no real justice in Yemeni society. Some people get everything and others are starving,” yells Mohamed al-Amrany, who says he can’t afford to pay for his university studies.
Despite worries about clashes between the two pro- and antigovernment demonstrations, Thursday’s protests were relatively peaceful, and dispersed around noon. Progovernment demonstrators have vowed to camp out in Sanaa's Tahrir Square until Friday night.
“The president's address was brave, balanced, and it meets a great deal of the opposition’s demands. But what is required now is practical steps to translate the words into actions on the ground,” says ruling party parliament member Ali Al-Mamari.
Meanwhile, Washington, which wants to avoid chaos in heavily armed Yemen, where an active branch of Al Qaeda has set up a base, also praised Saleh’s remarks on Wednesday and said that they were steps in the right direction.