Outside Yemen's capital, anger and grievances run deep

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 10:56 AM

TAIZ, YEMEN - It's 10 p.m. on a Thursday, and Freedom Square is electric. Ten thousand protesters, perhaps more, are waving flags and banners clamoring for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign. On a makeshift stage, 12-year-old Ons Al-Ahdel, dressed in a head-to-toe black abaya and clutching a bubble-gum-pink purse, grabs the microphone.

"The revolution is coming," she screams.

This south-central city, ringed by oatmeal-colored mountains, is a place that many believe could become the cradle of another Arab revolution, if momentum builds here as it did in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Activists are comparing Taiz to Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city that triggered the rebellion that threatens to oust Moammar Gaddafi.

As in Benghazi, residents of Taiz have a history of grievances and deep-rooted resentment toward their regime, accusing the government in Sanaa, the capital, of ignoring their region for decades. The anger runs deepest among a large, ambitious middle class that considers the city to be the intellectual and cultural heart of Yemen.

"The government doesn't care about us," said Faisal Athubani, 27, a youth leader. "They are afraid because the people here are educated. If they give us benefits, they fear we can gain power and change Yemen. So they want to keep us down."

Saleh, a vital U.S. ally who has ruled Yemen for more than three decades, has pledged to step down when his term ends in 2013. The 68-year-old leader has also pledged not to pass the presidency to his son and has offered to re-launch power-sharing talks with the opposition.

But the concessions have only emboldened the protesters, who have little faith in Saleh's promises. Huge crowds mobilized in cities across Yemen on Tuesday, after Saleh blamed the United States and Israel for the continued unrest.

Yemen's main political opposition - a coalition of six parties - has joined the protests, urging supporters to go to the streets. At least 10 lawmakers from Saleh's own party have resigned in recent days, though he retains the support of 80 percent of Yemen's parliament.

"There is no going back to dialogue," said Mohammed al-Sabri, a lawmaker and spokesman for the opposition coalition, who addressed a rally in Taiz on Friday, just after the nighttime rally, that drew as many as 100,000 demonstrators, one of the largest protests among recent uprisings in Yemen. "We want the government to step down."

Since the protests in Yemen began Feb. 16, human rights activists say, at least 27 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and anti-government demonstrators. Most casualties have been in the southern city of Aden, another place full of revolutionary fervor.

Across Yemen, the protests appear to be drawing a wider cross section of Yemenis, from urbanized elites to rural tribesmen, from lawyers to laborers, suggesting a political maturation of the populist uprising.

Burgeoning movement

In Taiz, what started out as a small pro-democracy protest by 35 youth activists has grown to include medical unions, religious leaders, even entire tribes and villages. Inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, they have set up tents in a patch of central Taiz that they have renamed Freedom Square, mimicking Cairo's Tahrir - or Liberation - Square, the focal point of the Egyptian revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.

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