Yemen rejects Saleh offer with biggest protests yet

Nearly 100,000 called today for President Saleh to step down, despite his proposal yesterday for sweeping reforms. But Yemen's growing protest movement lacks a coherent plan, raising concern that other groups could seize control of the country.

Antigovernment protesters gather during a rally to demand for the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on March 11. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Yemen on Friday, trying to draw record crowds to show Saleh his offers of reform would not soften their demand for his resignation.

Just one day after Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh proposed sweeping reforms that would change the country’s constitution and transform the government into a parliamentary system by 2012, nearly 100,000 people gathered on the streets outside Sanaa University calling for his immediate resignation.

“Six months ago we might have accepted a plan like this. But this is a way for [Mr. Saleh] to stay in power,” said Yousef al-Ward, an opposition demonstrator from the nearby village of Beni Hushaish. “We want a new government – without him in it.”

Friday’s demonstration, the largest to date in Yemen’s capital, was marked by a fearless defiance after protests turned violent earlier this week. On Tuesday, security forces opened fire on protesters, injuring dozens and killing one. Rubber bullets, live rounds, and tear gas were fired at demonstrators, who were attempting to push back security lines and expand the area where thousands have been camping out for weeks.

The rapid growth of the opposition in recent weeks has increased the pressure on Saleh to either yield to or confront the uprising. However, the surge in numbers has also brought tension to the opposition itself.

Despite the fact that the students, Islamists, tribesmen, and political leaders that make up the opposition are united in calling for the fall of the regime, their perspectives diverge sharply when it comes to how that should be done and what should come next. Without a coherent plan, the opposition may be creating opportunities for other groups to seize control of the country.

“Some of the tribes and Islamic sheikhs may have plans to try to jump into power,” says Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a leading political analyst in Sanaa.

Fault lines on women's rights, role of Islam

As the demonstrations continue into their second month, fault lines among the opposition are becoming increasingly apparent – especially on fundamental issues such as the type of freedom desired and the prominence of Islam in a future system.

Most Yemenis protesting at the university simply label their desired changes as democratic reforms, although the exact meaning of those reforms remains a subject of debate.

“The idea of democracy is not clear to people here,” says Adel al-Surabi, a spokesman for Sanaa’s youth movement, which began the protests in January. The movement, which has been adamant in demanding Mr. Saleh’s immediate departure from office, has yet to express a vision beyond the collapse of the government.

“I don't think a real democracy is possible, but we want something better than what we have now,” says Mr. Surabi. Most Yemenis, he says, are unprepared to break from traditional elements the country’s societal structure.

“They say they want to be free like some countries in the West, but then if you asked them if they want their sister or their wife to have that same kind of freedom, they would say no. They want a free country, but not for women.”

'We look to Islam to correct these problems'

One woman already challenging traditional roles is protest leader Tawakul Karman. Her prominent position and liberal views have made the 32-year-old mother of three not only a symbol of the movement, but a magnet for conflict. She was the specific target of violence at numerous early protests, escaping into cars under hails of stones and bottles when pro- and anti-government demonstrators clashed.

“The youth aren’t thinking about what’s after Ali Abdullah Saleh,” says Mrs. Karman, who is a member of the Islah party. “We’re looking to build a civil democratic country, a government that is on an equal level with its free people.”

For Mrs. Karman, part of creating that sort of freedom comes from rethinking the role of Islam in politics.

“Most of the movement doesn’t want religion to have the same role that it has in the current regime. This regime deals with religion as a way to oppress people,” she says, adding that she hopes that in the next system, religion will be a choice for people but not part of the country’s law. Article 3 of the current constitution states that sharia, or Islamic law, is the source of all legislation.

But Yemen is among the most conservative countries in the Muslim world, and many of those in the opposition, including other Islah party members, see today’s uprising as an opportunity to increase the role of Islam in politics.

“Our country has fallen into a pattern of corruption and injustice,” says Mohammad al-Izaj al-Sulehi, an Islah parliament member representing the Dhamar region. “We're asking for democracy, but this is a Muslim country, and we look to Islam to correct these problems.”

What the tribes want

Last week, renowned cleric and Islah member Sheikh Abdel Majid al-Zindani joined the protesters, and in a speech, called for the institution of an Islamic caliphate.

Mr. Zindani, designated a terrorist by the US government for suspected ties with Al Qaeda, has been a polarizing figure in Yemen’s uprising.

The cleric’s speech seems to have been particularly divisive among the country’s various tribes. While some tribe members from Marib have come out in support of the notion of Islamic rule, tribesmen from other regions have sharply opposed it.

“The people are not with Sheikh Zindani,” said Mohammed al-Buhaiti, a tribesman from Al-Haddad. “What we want is a stable civilian government.”

The tribes are looking towards the government for basic necessities, like electricity and schools, says Mr. Buhaiti. Stagnant development and a lack of employment has caused many tribes to turn against the current regime, he says.

“Right now the relationship between the government and tribes is unstable and could explode at any moment.”

Power struggle between Saleh, tribes?

Those specific tensions have become a cause of concern, particularly in light of the fractured nature of the opposition. In the absence of a clear plan, many fear that a violent power struggle would ensue between the military and the country’s tribes if the president were to step down immediately.

A number of Saleh’s relatives hold key posts in the Yemeni military, including the president’s son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guard and Special Forces.

“The way I see it, Saleh only has one option, and that’s to organize an orderly departure," says Mr. Iryani. "If he doesn’t, it will be very bloody.”

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