By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 10:25 PM
SANAA, YEMEN - They took to the streets on Thursday, tens of thousands of pro- and anti-government demonstrators, driven by the upheavals gripping the Arab world and a desire to shape the course of their impoverished nation.
"We need freedom. Get out, Ali Abdullah Saleh, get out!" the crowd in one part of the capital chanted, referring to their president and holding banners calling for the end of corruption.
"No to chaos and destruction," the crowd in another part of the capital shouted, clutching large portraits of Saleh and declaring that he was vital to Yemen's stability.
The sentiments exemplified how much the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have altered mind-sets across the region. Among both groups of protesters in Yemen's capital, a long-standing fear of autocracy had vanished, replaced by a boldness that may represent in the years ahead the most far-reaching change that emerges from the wave of populist rebellions.
On the streets of this dusty, crowded capital there was a sense that here, too, ordinary people could finally hold their president, a vital U.S. ally, accountable after more than three decades in power.
"We can change our president. We feel confident," said Saleh Said al-Jawhari, 25. "I have two college degrees, in accounting and English. But I've been jobless for a year. I am no longer afraid to confront this regime."
In recent days, the leaders of several countries in the region have made conciliatory gestures, apparently to prevent popular frustrations from boiling over as they have in Egypt. The most recent came Thursday from Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, serving his third term, who promised to end a 19-year-old state of emergency and allow more political freedoms, the state news agency reported. A major opposition demonstration is planned in Algeria next week.
Despite predictions that the demonstrations in Yemen could turn violent because of a tribal culture and abundance of weapons, the rival rallies were for the most part peaceful. To avoid violent clashes, Yemen's political opposition moved its protest from the capital's Tahrir, or Liberation, Square when the ruling party decided to stage its own rally there.
Protests took place in seven provinces. In the southern city of Aden, a hotbed of anti-government sentiments, several people were injured in clashes between security forces and protesters. There were also minor scuffles between rival groups in the capital.
But by 1 p.m., the protesters had mostly dispersed, and the capital had returned to normal, although police and soldiers remained on many corners throughout the day.
The events came a day after Saleh announced that he would not seek another term or anoint his son Ahmed as his successor. He has also pledged other political reforms, raised government salaries, extended welfare payments and slashed income taxes, in an effort to defuse tensions in a nation already reeling from widespread poverty, two rebellions and a resurgent branch of al-Qaeda.
A White House statement said that President Obama had called Saleh and welcomed the measures but stressed the need "to follow-up his pledge with concrete actions."
Saleh's promise to step down appeared to have only emboldened the opposition. At Sanaa University, tens of thousands of protesters - a collection of Islamists, socialists, students and activists - denounced the government and expressed their frustrations. It was one of the largest, if not the largest, demonstrations this capital has seen in recent memory.
Several people interviewed said they did not believe that Saleh would give up power voluntarily, noting that he had promised in 2005 not to seek another term but changed his mind a year later.
"He's a big liar," said Faras Sharagbi, 30, a government worker.
Thousands also gathered at the pro-Saleh rally, but it was smaller than the anti-governments ones. The energy, though, was just as high as Saleh's supporters danced and paraded in the streets.
"We want him as president. And we want Ahmed to be the next president," said Asia Ali Abdullah al-Qattabi, a retired military clerk. "The opposition is looking only after its own interests. They want to damage the country."
Some protesters said Saleh loyalists had told them to come to the protests. Taha Abdullah Abdu, 21, said the sheik of his village, a member of the ruling party, had ordered him and other villagers to come. Then Abdu quickly added: "We love the president."
But even among the pro-Saleh demonstrators there was a sense that life would never be the same. Ali Nasser, a civil engineer in the military, candidly said that he and other state employees had been ordered to come and show support for Saleh.
Yahya Nashwan, a water ministry employee, said that government salaries had been delayed and that his superiors had indicated he should attend the rally if he wanted to receive his pay. "It was pressure on us to come out and support the president," he said.
When asked if they would face problems if their names were published, both men said they were willing to take that chance.
"This is freedom of speech," Nashwan said.
"We can say whatever we want," chimed in Nasser.