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.
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.
Here, thousands eat, sleep, and protest virtually 24 hours a day. Organizers have set up first-aid and food tents; young men frisk anyone who enters, to prevent weapons from flowing into the area.
“We want democracy, and I will not leave until we get it,” said Bander Abdulwahid, 28, a machinist who has slept in his yellow tent for two weeks.
Taiz has a history of rebellion. In the 1950s, this was the epicenter of the Free Yemeni movement that sought political reforms. At the time, it was also the administrative capital of North Yemen. By the 1980s, though, power had shifted to Sanaa, even more so after North and South Yemen were unified in 1990.
On the streets and in the tea shops of this ancient city, the disaffection is evident. As in other parts of the country, people here complain about high unemployment, a lack of basic services, corruption and poverty. Nearby agricultural regions are suffering the full impact of the country’s water shortage, forcing farmers to move to the city to compete for scarce jobs, adding to the ranks of the frustrated.
Taiz is also the nation’s industrial capital. Unrest here could destabilize Yemen’s economy, already weakened by shrinking oil revenue and political emergencies, which include a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a resurgent al-Qaeda branch.
As in Tunisia, the populist uprising here is being fueled by ambitious youths such as Athubani, who feel the world is passing them by under Saleh. “Even if you have a university degree, you cannot find a job,” he said.
He and other youth activists have used Facebook, text messages and word of mouth to organize demonstrations. They are connected with other youth activists not only across Yemen, but also in Egypt and Tunisia.
On Friday, many said they had come out in anger on a day that organizers dubbed “Martyrs’ Friday” to commemorate the deaths of two activists killed in a grenade attack in the square Feb 18. Amid large pictures of the victims, the crowds called for Saleh to resign, chanting “Irhal, irhal!” — go away, go away!
Activists and opposition leaders said they want to avoid the sort of chaos that has beset Libya. With an abundance of weapons and tribal rivalries, Yemen could easily plunge into civil war. The activists say they hope peaceful demonstrations, as they get larger and larger, will persuade Saleh to step down in the upcoming weeks or months.
“If it doesn’t happen, we will go to the streets and fight,” Athubani said. “That is our last resort.”