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Inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis join in anti-government protests

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 6:26 PM

SANAA, YEMEN - Inspired by the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, thousands of Yemenis took to the streets Thursday demanding an end to the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled this impoverished Middle Eastern nation for more than three decades.

The rally, one of the largest demonstrations in this capital in recent memory, unfolded in four neighborhoods. Protesters wore pink scarves and pink bandanas and clutched pink placards. Some described their struggle as "the Pink Revolution," an allusion to Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution.

"Thirty-two years is enough. Tunisia revolted after 23 years," some chanted.

"Look at Tunisia with pride," others chanted. "Yemen has strong people, too."

Yemen's unrest represents a widening of the upheavals unfolding across the Arab world. It poses yet another threat to the stability of this U.S. ally, which al-Qaeda militants are using as a base to target the West and its allies.

The protests followed two days of riots in Egypt and daily demonstrations on the streets of the Tunisian capital, Tunis. But unlike the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Thursday's rally here was peaceful and organized. Fueled by boisterous opposition party members, from socialists to Islamists, and youth activists, the protests seemed designed to send a carefully calibrated message of regime change rather than to incite chaos.

Protesters shut down streets, sang songs and shouted patriotic slogans, as soldiers and riot police wearing helmets and carrying batons and shields watched. Security was tight around the capital.

"This is a military state, not a democracy," said Manna Fatah, a university professor. "After 32 years, it is time for change. We want a bloodless revolution."

The poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen is struggling with many of the same problems faced by other Arab nations, including high unemployment, low wages, rising prices and widespread corruption. In addition to the threat posed by al-Qaeda's Yemen branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the weak government is grappling with a rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south.

"The people are suffering," said Khalil al-Mikhlafi, 27, who works in microfinance. "When I was a teacher, I earned 150 dollars a month. There is too much corruption, too much neglect."

"The Yemeni people used to be silent," he added a few moments later. "Now they want to explode. They have lost their patience."

In an effort to defuse the unrest, Saleh in a televised speech raised the salaries of the army and denied accusations that he was trying to anoint his son as his successor. He also ordered income taxes cut in half and sought adequate controls on inflation. But Yemenis from all walks of life, from the poor to the middle class, have taken to the streets over the past two weeks, calling for Saleh's removal. It is a demand that few citizens in the past would have dared to utter.

More than 10,000 protesters descended on Hurriyah (Freedom) Street outside the campus of Sanaa University on Thursday. Witnesses said a similar number, if not more, gathered in the capital's Hasabah enclave, near the house of the former leader of Islah, the nation's major Islamist party. Thousands more gathered at the two other locations.

A pro-government rally in the capital, also held at four locations, attracted far fewer supporters.

Mohammed al-Basha, a Yemeni government spokesman, said there were no major clashes or arrests, and he described the police presence as minimal. "The government of the Republic of Yemen strongly respects the democratic right for a peaceful assembly," Basha said in a statement.

The many grievances against the government were on full display on Hurriyah Street. Some protesters carried signs that read: "Our stomachs ache. There is no bread." Others carried signs that denounced Saleh and his family's efforts to remain in power.

Opposition leaders over megaphones spoke angrily about the country's high poverty rate, corruption and the lack of jobs, even for college graduates.

"My life is difficult," said Mahmoud Ali, 20, a pink scarf wrapped around his neck. "I have no job. The prices of everything - food, transportation - are rising. What's happening in Tunisia and Egypt has encouraged us to come out and demand our rights."

As he spoke, the crowds began to chant once again:

"The people want the president replaced. Live free, Yemen."

Nearby, Abdul Hafidh al-Dhurafi, 30, a teacher, shouted to be heard. "We will continue to protest until there's change," he declared, his hands balling up into a fist.

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