By Portia Walker
Friday, March 4, 2011; 6:28 PM
SANAA, YEMEN - Tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets Friday to protest the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as violence in a restive northern town left at least three people dead.
Members of a rebel Shiite group said they were holding a peaceful demonstration in the town of Harf Sufyan when they were attacked by government forces. The attack left three people dead and seven injured, according to Abu Hashem, a spokesman for the group.
The government disputed that account, saying that an armed group of men had attempted to overrun a military checkpoint, and that seven people were injured in the resulting clashes. The government said there were no peaceful demonstrations in the vicinity of the checkpoint.
Friday's demonstrations were focused in the capital, Sanaa, and in other major cities. Demonstrators in Yemen are calling for Saleh to leave office immediately, but he has shown no sign of budging.
The protests have, for the time being, united formerly disparate anti-government groups, including a separatist movement in the south and rebel tribes in the north.
Harf Sufyan, the scene of Friday's clashes, has long been the stage for fighting between Houthis, a Shiite rebel group, and government forces. The Houthis said late last month that they would put their guns down and join the peaceful calls for Saleh's resignation.
"It's a big change when the Houthis are marching and when the Southern Movement are asking for regime change," said Khalid al-Anisi, a Sanaa-based human rights activist and a key figure in the anti-government movement. "This is our historic moment to make a change."
Opposition parties have been trying to agree on a deal with the president that would allow for the peaceful transition of power.
Saleh's grip on his office appears precarious. But so is the bond among the Houthis, southern separatists, students, tribesman and human rights activists. The groups have little in common beyond their mutual contempt for Saleh. If they succeed in ousting him, they probably will struggle to reach agreement on a new system of governance for Yemen.
Adel al-Surabi, a student leader, said he wants the aftermath of any revolution to resemble what is happening in Egypt. Although he said he is optimistic that Yemen will become "a secular democratic state," he conceded that "after the revolution, everyone will have their own agenda."
Perhaps foreshadowing future rifts, many demonstrators on Friday stressed their differences with the formal opposition parties. One of the protesters was Abdulwahab Makrafi. The unemployed 26-year-old said that he and his fellow protesters would not accept any deal agreed upon by the Joint Meeting Party, the coalition of opposition parties that is negotiating with Saleh. "The JMP do not represent us," he said. "We represent ourselves. This is our revolution."