SANAA, Yemen — A new sense of national identity is spreading across Yemen’s divided society as rival tribesmen and political foes unite to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who on Friday said he would step aside as long as he could deliver power to “safe hands.”
Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets Friday to demand Saleh’s ouster. Once-privileged members of Saleh’s Hashid tribe marched side by side with southerners persecuted by his regime. They chanted, “One demand, one Yemen.” The national anthem blared over loudspeakers.
“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.
Outside Sanaa University on Friday, at the spot that has become the epicenter of the uprising, dubbed Change Square, southerners and northerners chewed the narcotic khat together. Tribes allied with northern Houthi rebels erected tents near Yemeni soldiers loyal to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the top general and key Saleh ally who for years had fought the rebels. He is now aligned with the protesters. In a remarkable shift, southerners on Friday did not call for secession; northerners did not promote their rebellion.
“Once again, Saleh has become the great unifier of all the Yemeni people, this time against himself,” said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a political analyst, referring to Saleh becoming president of a united North and South Yemen in 1990. “I can sense the camaraderie and good feelings among opposite groups, who have identified the regime as their common enemy and are now prepared to coexist with each other peacefully.”
For years, Saleh dominated through a divide-and-rule strategy, which he described as “dancing on the heads of snakes.” Through a system of patronage, he gave chosen tribal leaders money, weapons, jobs and government positions in exchange for their loyalty. He often played tribes against each other to weaken them. But such tactics also bred envy and resentment among less fortunate tribes.
Saleh’s favoritism also bolstered a system in which Yemenis turned to their tribes for support, ensuring that they were more loyal to individual tribes than their nation.
“Once, he pushed us into conflict with another tribe,” said Abdulrahman Guizeika, whose own tribe had set up a protest tent. “That tribe is also here now. We chewed khat with them the other day.”
A few tents down along Justice Street, Hudaiqi Ayed, a 30-year-old civil engineer, said the government had convinced him that Houthis — Shiite Muslims who practice the Zaidi brand of Islam — were backed by Iran. But after conversations with them, he said, he was convinced otherwise. “They are like us. Yemen is one big family,” said Ayed, who like most Yemenis is a Sunni Muslim.
Nearby, Abdullah al-Nigar, a southerner, said that for years he had favored secession from the north. No longer. “Saleh is the cause of the problems we face in the south. If he resigns, they will vanish,” he said. “We will have no reason to secede.”
Many in Change Square echoed his sentiments, declaring that without Saleh, a new Yemen could be created, ruled by modern laws rather than tribal codes.
Yet there were also some signs that the old order could remain. When asked whether Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the defected general, could one day lead Yemen, Muhsin Naji, a tribesman from the Baqeel, angrily said: “No one from the house of Ahmar can lead us. We reject them all.”
And in Sanaa’s Tahrir Square, where Saleh’s loyalists are camped, many predicted violence if the president stepped down prematurely.
“If the president accepts the opposition’s demands and steps down, the north and south will erupt and there will be civil war. And al-Qaeda will exploit this to demand whatever they want,” said Mohammed Hussein al-Huleisi, a tribal leader from Marib. “Whoever demands change is the enemy of the country.”