Anti-government rallies in Yemen stay calm

Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 4, 2011

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."

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