But the small march on Saturday never reached its intended target. A line of police stopped the protesters; then a loud, unruly crowd of pro-government supporters emerged, and the two groups clashed. The protesters soon vanished, their voices muffled by pro-government chants.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, is clearly rattled by the anarchy unfolding in Egypt. But what has happened here also shows that Yemen’s situation is distinct from its neighbors, even as many Yemenis share the same grievances and frustrations driving the upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia.
Many among the Arab world’s dispossessed hope for a domino effect that could see more of the region’s autocratic regimes fall, like the swift collapse of the Soviet Union. But in Yemen, activists are facing numerous obstacles, straddling political, social and economic fault lines, even as they gain courage and inspiration from the momentous events unfolding in the region.
“The situation in different Arab countries is similar, but there’s a big difference in the enthusiasm of the people in the streets as well as the ability to go to the streets,” said Aidroos Al Naqeeb, head of the socialist party bloc in Yemen’s parliament.
“In Yemen, the living conditions are far worse than Egypt. The services are far worse than Egypt,’’ Naqeeb said. The anger and resentment is also larger than Egypt. But civil society is weaker here and the culture of popular opposition is far lesser here.”
Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, impoverished Yemen has a small middle class and a large uneducated and illiterate population. Social networking sites such as Facebook that helped mobilize the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are not widely used here.
Yemen’s internal security apparatus is at least as sophisticated and deeply entrenched as in Egypt; the army is staunchly loyal to Saleh, as are powerful tribes in a country where tribal allegiance is more significant than national identity. The opposition, while strong in numbers, is divided in its goals.
“There is a popular movement and a political movement in Yemen,” said Khaled al-Anesi, a lawyer and human rights activist who helped organized many of the recent protests. “But there is no support from the political parties for the popular movement, which is not organized. It is still weak and in the beginning stages.”
Ever since the reunification of north and south Yemen in 1990, Saleh has marginalized political opposition groups and installed relatives and allies to key political, military and internal security posts.
Still, the popular uprisings that have ousted Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power and propeled Egypt into chaos have shaken Saleh’s weak regime, marking the latest threat to a nation grappling already with a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a resurgent Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda.
In a televised speech last week, the 64-year-old Saleh, a vital U.S. ally in the war on terror, denied that his son would succeed him. He also raised the salaries of soldiers, in an apparent effort to maintain their loyalty; slashed income taxes in half and ordered price controls.
Saleh was speaking in the aftermath of a rally earlier this month in which thousands of protesters took to the streets, with students and human rights activists calling for president to resign. But political opposition leaders have emphasized reform rather than regime change, alling on Saleh to honor a constitutionally mandated term limit that would end his presidency in 2013.
Many student activists and human rights activists disagree with the political opposition’s tactics, arguing that attempts to share power with Saleh will never work and that they need to channel the momentum of the uprisings in the region.
“Their opinion is to take it step by step. In our opinion, there is no benefit,” said Anesi. “This guy, Ali Abdullah Saleh, for him everything is a game. He tries to cheat political parties and international society. We are wasting time. We have to go to the streets. This is the best moment to demand change.”
Other activists have alleged that many opposition leaders have lucrative investments and businesses that, in Yemen, are possible only through good relations with Saleh and his party.
Naqeeb conceded he and other oppositions leaders are trying to forge democratic reforms without resorting to violence. But he added that if Saleh continues to stonewall them, the situation in Yemen “will reach a point like Egypt,” in a nation in which every household owns a Kalashnikov rifle.
In a meeting convened in advance of Saturday’s rally, none of the organizers seemed to care that Yemeni plainclothes police had infiltrated the session and were aware of their plans. But by the time the protesters reached the police lines, their chants were being drowned out by those of pro-government supporters .
Some attacked the pro-democracy faction with knives and sticks. The policemen watched and did not stop the melee. Soon the activists fled, and the pro-government supporters then marched on through the traffic, chanting and singing.
“I like the president. We don’t understand why he should leave,” said Abdullah Al-Mujali, one of the supporters. “We don’t want the same as what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. It is different here.”
Activists including Anesi say they are determined to press forward with their calls to oust Saleh. “We have no choice,” he said.