“We are of one heart because we all have the same demand: Ali Abdullah Saleh has to leave,” said Abdulrahman Saeed, 18, a student.
But without question, deep divisions remain. On the other side of town, tens of thousands of Saleh supporters clutched portraits of their president and banners that read “No to chaos. Yes to security and stability.” A faction of the armed forces that still supports Saleh protected them.
Even as Saleh offered to step down, he remained defiant at an open-air rally, accusing his opponents of trying to stage coups while he sought to keep the peace. Saleh has been negotiating his exit with rivals but has fiercely resisted all suggestions of an immediate resignation.
At no other point in Saleh’s 32-year reign have so many from his diverse array of opponents coalesced to try to force him from power. The question now is whether that unity leads to a new era of coexistence that could reshape Yemen, or whether attempts to force Saleh’s hand will further destabilize a country that seems chronically perched on the edge of chaos.
Yemen has been beset for years by existential threats, from a northern rebellion to a southern secessionist movement to a resurgent al-Qaeda branch. Poverty, a lack of water and anemic government services have all intensified resentment toward Saleh.
A week ago, snipers loyal to the government killed 52 protesters near Sanaa University. The bloodshed was a significant turning point in the uprising, prompting a string of high-level defections from Saleh’s fold, including top generals, diplomats and tribal leaders, including those belonging to Yemen’s largest tribe, the Baqeel, and Saleh’s own Hashid tribe.
Since then, pressure has mounted on Saleh to step down. The United States has favored a gradual transition, while demonstrators have said they will accept nothing less than his immediate resignation. Saleh suggested Friday that he would not give in to such demands.
“We, in the leadership, do not want power and do not need it, and we are willing to hand over power to safe hands, not to frivolous, sick, hateful and corrupt hands,” Saleh said, according to Saba, Yemen’s official news agency.
Saleh’s speech echoed remarks made last month by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at a time when he was struggling to contain a rebellion in his own country. It was Mubarak’s Feb. 11 ouster that reenergized Yemen’s protesters to push, in ever larger numbers, for Saleh to resign.