SANAA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Yemenis squared off in street protests for and against the government on Thursday during an opposition-led “Day of Rage”, a day after President Ali Abdullah Saleh offered to step down in 2013.
The peaceful protests faded out by midday as planned, suggesting Yemenis outside the traditional opposition activist core had not been motivated to transform the rally into a self-sustaining Egypt-style mass upheaval.
But the opposition drew more than 20,000 people in Sanaa, the biggest crowd since a wave of demonstrations hit the Arabian Peninsula state two weeks ago, inspired by protests that toppled Tunisia’s ruler and threaten Egypt’s president.
“The people want regime change,” anti-government protesters had shouted as they gathered near Sanaa University, a main rallying point. “No to corruption, no to dictatorship.”
Saleh, eyeing the unrest spreading in the Arab world, indicated on Wednesday he would leave office when his term ends in 2013, and promised that his son would not take over the reins of government, among a host of other political concessions.
It was Saleh’s boldest gambit yet to stave off turmoil in Yemen, a key U.S. ally against al Qaeda, as he sought to avert a showdown with protesters in the deeply impoverished state.
Across Yemen, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets including in Taiz, where Saleh once served as military governor, and in southern towns where a separatist movement has grown increasingly active.
Yet analysts say only a large showing from traditionally non-aligned Yemenis and disgruntled youths, facing soaring unemployment and meagre incomes, would create a watershed moment for wider Yemen unrest.
Scuffles broke out in the southern city of Aden when security forces broke up a protest with teargas, and two people were wounded. Hundreds of security men had deployed across the city, arresting 20, an opposition spokesman said.
Yemen’s biggest opposition party, the Islamist Islah, welcomed Saleh’s initiative but snubbed a presidential appeal to call off protests. Yet anti-government protesters appeared to lack consensus, with some calling for Saleh to get out while others wanted him to prove he would act on his promises.
“What the president offered yesterday was just theatre, I don’t trust him,” a protester, Mahmoud Abdullah, said in Sanaa.
ON THE BRINK
In most of the country, protests ended promptly at noon, with demonstrators dispersing quietly ahead of a customary break to chew qat, a narcotic leaf widely consumed in Yemen.
Should protests widen, the stakes would be high for Saleh. His country is on the brink of becoming a failed state, as it tries to fight a resurgent al Qaeda wing, quell southern separatism, and cement peace with Shi’ite rebels in the north.
“The danger for the government is that all these different strands of opposition ... coalesce not necessarily out of any sort of allegiance, but because they have the same political enemy. That becomes very dangerous for Saleh,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University.
Saleh, a shrewd political survivor, has backed out of previous promises to step aside. Analysts say Wednesday’s pledge could be a genuine way to exit gracefully but he may also hope to wait out regional unrest and reassert dominance another day.
More than 20,000 pro-Saleh protesters also rallied in Sanaa. Supporters of the president who has ruled Yemen for more than three decades drove around the capital urging Yemenis via loudhailers to join the counter-demonstrations. A Reuters witness said supporters were also bussed into the capital.
“Yes to the president. No to chaos. Yes to stability,” they shouted. “With our blood and soul we sacrifice for you Ali.”
Yemen’s opposition coalition said it wanted assurances that reforms would be implemented, and demanded better living conditions for Yemenis, about 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day while a third suffer from chronic hunger.
“They’re just starting to find their voice and they’re angry about a multitude of issues. Yemenis are angry about the situation, but haven’t reached the level they have in Egypt,” said Barak Barfi, Research Fellow for New America Foundation.
The United States relies heavily on Saleh to help combat al Qaeda’s Yemen-based arm which also targets neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter. Instability in Yemen would present serious political and security risks for Gulf states.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Dubai; Writing by Erika Solomon and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Michael Roddy
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