Thousands in Yemen Protest Against the Government

Thursday, 27 January 2011 12:30 By J David Goodman, J David Gooman and Nada Bakri, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Beirut, Lebanon - Yemen, one of the Middle East’s most impoverished countries and a haven for Al Qaeda militants, became the latest Arab state to witness mass protests on Thursday, as thousands of Yemenis took to the streets in the capital and other regions to demand a change in government.

The scenes broadcast across the Arab world were reminiscent of demonstrations in Egypt this week and the month of protests that brought down the government in Tunisia. But as they climaxed by midday, the marches appeared to be carefully organized and mostly peaceful, though there were reports of arrests by security forces. Predictably, the protests were most aggressive in the restive south.

In Sana, at least 10,000 protesters led by opposition members and youth activists gathered at Sana University and around 6,000 more elsewhere, participants, lawmakers and activists reached by telephone said. Many carried pink banners and wore pink headbands.

While the marches were peaceful, the potential for strife in the country is difficult to overstate. It is beset by a rebellion in the north and a struggle for secession in the south. In recent years, the regional Al Qaeda affiliate has turned parts of the country, a rugged, often lawless swath of southwestern Arabian Peninsula, into a refuge beyond the state’s reach. Added to the mix is a remarkably high proportion of armed citizens.

“I fear Yemen is going to be ripped apart,” said Mohammed Naji Allaw, coordinator of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedom, which was one of the organizers of the protests. “The situation in Yemen is a lot more dangerous than in any other Arab country.”

He said a phrase often heard these days is that Yemen faces “tatasawmal” — the Somalization of a country that witnessed a civil war in the mid-1990s.

Part of Mr. Allaw’s worries sprung from the inability of the opposition to forge a unified message. Some are calling for secession, he said, while others are looking to oust the president through popular protests. Yet others, he said, simply wanted Mr. Saleh to undertake a series of reforms before elections in April.

Khaled Alanesi, a colleague of Mr. Allaw’s at the human rights group in Sana, said: “The opposition is afraid of what would happen if the regime falls. Afraid of the militant groups, Al Qaeda, the tribes and all the arms here.”

The government responded to the protests by sending a large number of security forces into the streets, said Nasser Arabyee, a Yemeni journalist in Sana reached by phone. “Very strict measures, antiriot forces,” he called them. But the government suggested it had not deployed large numbers of security forces.

“The Government of the Republic of Yemen strongly respects the democratic right for a peaceful assembly,” said Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, in a statement. “We are pleased to announce that no major clashes or arrests occurred, and police presence was minimal.”

A pro-government rally, in another district of Sana, organized by Mr. Saleh’s party, attracted far fewer demonstrators, Mr. Arabyee said.

The demonstrations on Thursday followed several days of smaller protests by students and opposition groups calling for the removal of President Ali Abdallah Saleh, a strongman who has ruled this fractured country for more than 30 years and is a key ally of the United States in the fight against the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda.

In a televised speech on Sunday night, Mr. Saleh tried to defuse calls for his ouster, denying opposition claims that his son would inherit his power — as has happened in Syria and, some fear, may occur in Egypt. He said he would raise army salaries, a move that appeared designed to ensure soldiers’ loyalty. Mr. Saleh has also cut income taxes in half and ordered price controls.

The protests were the latest in a wave of unrest touched off by monthlong demonstrations in Tunisia that led to the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the authoritarian leader who ruled for 23 years and fled two weeks ago. The new Tunisian government issued an international warrant for his arrest on corruption charges Wednesday.

The antigovernment gatherings in Yemen also followed three days of violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Egypt, with the country bracing for another round of demonstrations on Friday in defiance of a government ban. Egyptian protesters have called for an end to the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who, like Mr. Saleh, has been an ally of the United States.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, relatively stable countries with substantial middle classes and broad access to the Internet, Yemen is among the poorest countries in the Middle East.

“People do have fair grievances everywhere in Yemen, but unfortunately they are being used by politicians from both sides,” the deputy finance minister, Jalal Yaqoub, told Reuters on Thursday, adding that the government “should listen to the people and enact substantial reforms.”

Yemen’s fragile stability has been of increasing concern to the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a visit to Sana earlier this month, urged Mr. Saleh to open a dialogue with the opposition, saying it would help to stabilize the country. His current term expires in two years, but proposed constitutional changes could allow him to hold onto power for longer.

During her visit, Ms. Clinton was asked by a Yemeni lawmaker how the United States could lend support to Mr. Saleh’s authoritarian rule even as his country increasingly becomes a haven for militants.

“We support an inclusive government,” Mrs. Clinton said in response. “We see that Yemen is going through a transition.”

Nada Bakri reported from Beirut, and J. David Goodman from New York. 

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Last modified on Thursday, 27 January 2011 12:38