Huge crowds turn out for and against Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh


Anti-government protesters shout slogans while holding a picture of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration calling for his ouster, in Sanaa April 1, 2011. (AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Tens of thousands of pro- and anti-government protesters took to the streets of Yemen’s capital after noon prayers Friday in peaceful rival demonstrations that were among the largest since popular unrest erupted here two months ago.

Soldiers and riot police swarmed Sanaa and a military helicopter buzzed overhead as supporters of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh gathered in Sabyeen Square, urging him to defy his critics and remain in power. Many said they worried that if the president steps down, the ensuing political chaos would destabilize the country, the region’s poorest.

“We want him to stay as president until he dies,” declared Hilal al-Salat, a tribal leader from the south-central governorate of Damar.

Outside Sanaa University, the headquarters of the rebellion, anti-government protesters called for an immediate end to Saleh’s 32-year-rule. People wearing paper bandannas emblazoned with the word “Leave” marched and chanted: “This Friday, Ali Abdullah. This is your last Friday.” Many protesters have been sleeping in hundreds of tents that have cropped up along the streets around the university’s gate, dubbed Change Square, vowing to remain until Saleh resigns.

“I am going to stay here until the apocalypse happens,” said Bandar al-Thabyani, 33, a teacher who said he had slept in his tent for nearly a month. “Because it seems the president does not want to leave.”

The dueling demonstrations took place as a political stalemate gripped the capital, with talks between Saleh and the opposition effectively stalled since Wednesday. The opposition rejected the president’s latest offer — to hand over power to an interim government provided he remains in office until the next elections.

Although Saleh appears to be hoping for what he has called a dignified exit, the opposition has expressed no trust in his promises and has continued to insist that he play no role in a new government.

After snipers loyal to the government killed 52 protesters near Sanaa University on March 18, Saleh has been weakened by a steady stream of defections by key allies in the military, in powerful tribes and in his government.

On Friday, his loyalists seemed determined to show that he still has considerable support from the Yemeni people. Many said they were infuriated by opposition leaders’ accusation that they were paid to attend recent pro-government rallies.

“Everyone here came spontaneously,” said Ismail al-Lisani, 27, a government employee. “I have not been paid, and neither has my family.”

As he spoke, another supporter declared: “There are millions here. Is this enough to show that the people support the president?”

Unofficial estimates put attendance at both demonstrations in the tens of thousands.

“Ninety percent of the people are with Ali Abdullah Saleh,” another supporter said.

Many loyalists said they were worried about their future in a country already beset by myriad problems, including a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and an active local affiliate of al-Qaeda.

“Yemen will be demolished without Ali Abdullah Saleh,” said Mohamed al-Mujari, another loyalist from Damar. “Yemen will be divided into four countries.”

But at Change Square, anti-government protesters dismissed such claims as fear-mongering by a weakened leader desperate to stay in power. Others demanded more international backing for their demands that Saleh step down.

“We want the kind of international support seen in the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia,” Thabyani said. “We all want the same democracy as in the United States and Europe. We just want to be treated like human beings.”

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's bureau chief in Africa since 2010. He began his career as a foreign correspondent in Africa, and covered the Iraq war as Baghdad bureau chief.
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