By Portia Walker
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; A09
SANAA, YEMEN - Tens of thousands of people, including a controversial preacher, turned out in cities across Yemen on Tuesday as opposition parties joined demonstrators in rejecting embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh's offer to form a unity government.
Saleh, in a speech to the faculty and others at Sanaa University, accused the United States and Israel of orchestrating the unrest sweeping through the region.
"There is an operation room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world," the longtime ruler said. "It is all run by the White House."
The allegation, presented without evidence, appeared to reflect growing desperation on the part of a leader who has long enjoyed U.S. support, and it drew a swift rebuttal from the Obama administration.
"The protests in Yemen are not the product of external conspiracies," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a message on Twitter. "President Saleh knows better."
Saleh, whose country received $300 million in U.S. aid last year, is seen by Washington as a key ally against the Arabian Peninsula's ambitious branch of al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went to Yemen in January, the first visit by an incumbent in the post since 1990.
Among the demonstrators here Tuesday was Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, an influential cleric who had hitherto maintained close ties with Saleh despite being a leading member of the opposition Islamist al-Islah party. The United States and United Nations list Zindani as a terrorist, citing his suspected links to al-Qaeda. Zindani's presence at the demonstration, where he gave an address, raised fears that the popular - and until now, secular - revolution could be hijacked by Islamists and political parties.
Ahmed Abdulrahman, 24, a student taking part in the Tuesday demonstrations, sounded confident that would not happen. "This revolution is for us, for all people, not for the parties," he said. "It's not important what they do. We began this, and we're going to complete it ourselves."
Earlier in the day, however, the prominent Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee said in an interview: "The young people are not the main players here. It's the clerics and tribes that are."
Some key tribal leaders openly sided with the demonstrators over the weekend, while others announced support for Saleh.
The president has made several concessions, including pledges to step down when his current term ends in 2013 and not transfer power to his son. But the offer to form a unity government within 24 hours - a gesture he has made and reneged on in the past - did little to placate the demonstrators.
"The people are fed up with dialogue," said Najrabi, 24, a teacher who gave just one name. "We just don't trust him anymore."
Opposition parties had designated Tuesday a "day of rage" and urged their members to join the youth-led demonstrations. The crowds were reportedly among the largest since the unrest began Feb. 11, and participants appeared jubilant.
"I feel like everybody has finally woken up after sleeping for 33 years," said Ibrahim Haider, a 19-year-old student.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, said that although Saleh has survived numerous crises in more than three decades of rule, "he doesn't appear to realize that the ground has shifted significantly beneath his feet."
Last week, 10 members of parliament from the ruling General People's Congress party resigned, and a key tribal leader, Hussein al-Ahmar, pledged support for the anti-government demonstrators.
The lawmakers say they were angered by the violence directed against the demonstrators, which Amnesty International estimates has killed 27 people.
The decision to support the youth protesters this week could indicate a more unified opposition to Saleh but also leave the opposition coalition in a precarious position, observers said.
"If they do not engage in dialogue, the situation might deteriorate into serious conflict," Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani said. "On the other hand, if they engage in negotiations, they fear that they will undermine the youth movement and lose their standing with it and still come out with nothing."
Walker is a special correspondent.