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Thousands of Yemenis protested in the streets of Sanaa today, on the heels of popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt. The protesters are calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a US ally who has been in power for 32 years.
"The people want a change in president," protesters chanted, according to Reuters, which estimated that 10,000 had shown up at Sanaa University and about 7,000 elsewhere in the city. "Look at Tunis and what it did. Yemen's people are stronger."
Saleh is also accused of trying to bequeath power to his son in the impoverished Middle Eastern nation that has come under increased US attention as it deals with instability on multiple fronts – a resurgent Al Qaeda movement, secessionists in its south, and a rebellion in its north.
There have not yet been clashes between police and protesters, Reuters adds. Government supporters held counterprotests, with thousands using the slogan, “No to toppling democracy and the Constitution,” Al Jazeera reports.
Protesters also addressed mounting social problems in the Arab world’s poorest nation, where nearly half the population is illiterate and a third is unemployed, the BBC notes. One banner at a popular protest read: "Enough playing around, enough corruption, look at the gap between poverty and wealth."
While today’s protests are the largest mobilization, smaller ones began last week, with prominent female activist Towakil Karman arrested Sunday on charges of organizing unlicensed rallies, undermining public social peace, and inciting to commit acts of rioting. Under apparent pressure from protesters,she was released on Monday along with nearly three dozen other jailed activists, The Christian Science Monitor reported.
“We the Yemeni people have been patient for years," Mahfoutha Hassan, an older woman, told Monitor correspondent Laura Kasinof at a Monday protest. "So when the government of Tunis fell, it stirred us up.”
Yemen is the latest in the region to be taken by popular protests since Tunisia toppled its president after a month of rallies. On Tuesday, Egyptians began protesting President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, facing a heavy-handed government response which sent out security forces to violently break up protests and shut down Twitter, the Monitor reported. Activists in Jordan and Algeria similarly launched antigovernment rallies over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times noted.
On whether the movements predict broad regime change in the region, Nadim Shehadi, from the London-based think tank Chatham House, told the LA Times that Tunisia’s revolt is an effect of regional shifts rather than being the main catalyst for later protests.
"If you look at the history of the last 100 years or so, you find that when the mood changes in the region it changes throughout," he said.
"After the fall of the Ottoman Empire when you had sort of liberal, pro-Western elites trying to create democratic institutions, you saw the same phenomenon in Cairo, Baghdad, Algiers, even Kabul," he explained. "When you started having the military take over after 1948, it started with a couple of coup d'etats in Syria and then 10 years later the whole region is [run by] colonels, from Algeria all the way to Indonesia."
Shehadi believes a similar period of change could be happening, but recent history is also full of false starts. The opposition "green movement" that engulfed Iran in the wake of the contested 2009 presidential elections did not spark revolutions around the region, as some had hoped.