Yemeni president tries to avert revolution as protests escalate

Rival protesters clashed in Yemen's capital today, with police firing live ammunition into the air.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Government backers run over a road barrier as they chase anti-government protesters during clashes in Sanaa, Yemen, February 17. Hundreds of Yemen government loyalists wielding batons and daggers chased off a small group of protesters trying to kick off a seventh day of rallies on Thursday to demand their president end his 32-year rule.
Yemeni anti-government protesters take part in a demonstration calling for the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Taiz, on Feb. 16.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Editor's note: This story was updated on Thursday, Feb. 17, at 10:10 a.m.

Protests in Yemen's capital escalated today as thousands opposed to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime clashed with pro-government demonstrators at a busy Sanaa intersection.

Both sides threw large stones and pieces of concrete at each other, and police shot live ammunition into the air. The opposition protesters, mostly students in their 20s, blocked their side of the street with tires set ablaze. The standoff lasted for about two hours until pro-government thugs descended on the demonstrators with sticks and pieces of broken metal.

"They've been throwing rocks at us all week, but today ... we fought back. We decided that we are going to defend ourselves," says Osama al-Asiri, an accounting student taking refuge inside the entrance of a house after he was struck with a piece of concrete. "This is a pure youth revolution."

Many are not convinced that an Egypt-style revolution can come to this impoverished country with a divided and disorganized opposition. As leaders across the Middle East feel the tremors of Egypt and Tunisia's uprisings, however, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has launched a campaign to stave off revolution in his country.

"Anybody who wants to reach power ... should pass through the ballot boxes, which are the only way, but not chaos, wrong mobilization and irresponsible utterance via media," said President Saleh in a Wednesday night speech to members of his ruling party and constituents from the northern, tribal-dominated Hajjah province.

But the image of Mr. Saleh as the guardian of stability, which he has long tried to maintain in the face of tribal tensions, limited resources, and the Arab world's poorest economy, is showing signs of fracturing.

Saleh himself has shown signs of concern, canceling a trip to the US and meeting with tribal leaders in an apparent effort to preempt any shift in their loyalties. And even as pro-government demonstrators make their voices heard in Sanaa's Tahrir Square, the overall tone of the protests has become more explicitly antigovernment.

Protesters today chanted the same slogan used by Egyptians: "The people want to expel the regime." When about 100 students peeled away from the main protest to march to the gates of Sanaa Univeristy campus around 1:30 p.m. this afternoon, they were cheered on by many on the streets as they passed. Children along the side of the street began to chant along with them.

“Most Yemenis are frustrated with this situation and don’t want it to continue. They need a better government, more so than Tunisian and Egyptians,” says Hafez Albukari, president of the independent Yemen Polling Center. “These people are watching to see the developments – if the regime will make actual reforms or not.”

Independent political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani says the intensity of the protests today show that the movement is "gaining momentum."

The US has cautiously supported pro-democracy protests across the region, despite its longstanding ties with autocratic regimes now under fire.

"Across the Middle East today we see people calling on governments to be more open, more accountable, more responsive," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington yesterday. "It is in the interests of governments to answer these demands, to reflect the will of their own people."

Hard line against protesters

Calls for Saleh to step down have increased since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak relinquished power six days ago and protests in Sanaa shifted from party-driven political rallies to antigovernment protests. In Taiz, a city just south of Sanaa known for having a relatively educated, yet poor populace, hundreds of young people demanding regime change have been staging a sit-in since last Friday.

While the numbers are still relatively small compared to the mass uprisings that took place in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters have routinely been attacked by pro-government thugs in what some say is a sign of fear that the events in Cairo could be replicated here.

“They are using force in Sanaa and Taiz against people, and this is what ended up toppling the governments in Tunisia and Egypt because it makes the people very angry,” says activist Mohamed Mohsin, who has suffered blows from people he says are plain-clothed police twice in the past week.

“In Egypt they used to say that it is different form Tunisia, and that’s why revolution couldn’t happen," he adds. "And now here they are saying the same thing. It is using force against the people that took these systems down.”

However, Abdelraham Maazab, a parliamentarian from the ruling party, says that reports of clashes between anti and pro-government in the past week have been inflated in an attempt to create momentum for an Egypt-like uprising.

“These clashes are very limited. If there were actual clashes on the streets of Yemen they would be very big,” says Mr. Maazab, alluding to the common idea that violence in Yemen escalates very quickly. “[The opposition] just wants to step up the problems in Yemen and it will keep doing so until it becomes like the Egypt situation.”

Yemen's official Saba news service today quoted an "official source in government" as saying, "There is no longer a reason for incitement and demonstration after the initiative of President Ali Abdullah Saleh for reforms and his call for dialogue to reach the national consensus and understanding on all issues of concern to the nation."

Yemen's Tahrir Square

Already, thousands of tribesmen from pro-Saleh areas outside the capital have set up a base camp in Sanaa’s main Tahrir Square, which shares the same name as Cairo’s main square where protesters gathered day and night until Mubarak fell.

Each morning they hold political rallies, play patriotic songs loudly on microphones, and march around the square, which is being guarded by police chanting that by their soul and their blood they will support the current regime.

Pro-government men say that their presence in the square – where Yemen’s government announced a book fair is being held – is all part of political participation in any healthy democracy. Antigovernment protesters insist that these men have been paid by officials to stay in Tahrir Square, a claim that derives some support from the fact that police were handing out lunch to the crowds one afternoon.

“In Tahrir they give them 2,000 [Yemeni rials, or $9] a day and give them qat,” says activist Mohsin, referring to the mild narcotic that is wildly popular among Yemeni men.

Omar al-Masnah, a pro-government protester who was standing in front of Sanaa University on Tuesday morning in order to prevent antigovernment protesters from gathering, denied allegations that he was being directed by a higher command to show publicly display his support for the regime.

“I swear this is from my heart," says the business student. "Saleh fixed the problems in Yemen between tribes."

However, Albukari of the Yemen Polling Center says that the support for Saleh that is ostentatiously being displayed around the streets of Sanaa during the past week is not representative of how the majority of Yemenis feel.

Just two days ago, the 70-year-old leader met with tribal leaders from neighboring Amran province who “reiterated their commitment to stand in the way of all preachers of sedition, sabotage, and chaos and to defend the homeland and its stability, unity, and democratic approach,” according to Yemen’s official news agency.

“The president wants to make sure that the tribes surrounding Sanaa are more loyal to the Saleh regime,” says Mr. Albukari from the Yemen Polling Center, adding that Saleh doesn't want any competitors.

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