January 20, 2011 / 5:31 PM / 9 years ago

Protests erupt in Yemen, president offers reform

SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters took to the streets of a town in southern Yemen on Thursday to reject proposed political reform by the government, including a limit on presidential terms.

The government announced its reform plans in the face of growing discontent that sparked sporadic protests this week.

Opposition parties said they would meet on Saturday to discuss the offer as thousands of people protested in the southern town of Taiz, saying the reforms proposed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh did not go far enough.

Saleh has ruled Yemen for over three decades.

“We want constitutional amendments but we want amendments that don’t lead to the continuance of the ruler and the inheritance of power to his children,” said Mohammed al-Sabry, head of the opposition coalition and the Islamist party Islah.

“We won’t permit these corrupt leaders to stay in power and we are ready to sleep in the streets for our country’s sake, in order to liberate it from the hands of the corrupt,” Sabry said.

The protests come as Tunisia grapples with fallout from the ouster of its long-time president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country after weeks of violent unrest sparked by social grievances.

Among the steps put forward by Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress, are amendments to guarantee presidential term limits of two seven- or five-year terms as well as voter registration to all Yemeni adults.

The opposition and protesters in Taiz said the reforms did not ensure that Saleh could not run again.

Protests in the south, where many cities are a hotbed of separatist sentiment, have been larger and more widespread than in the north. Several protests over unemployment and economic conditions took place in the southern port of Aden on Wednesday where protesters clashed with police.

Yemenis in the north said dwindling protest turnout in the capital Sanaa meant widespread revolt was unlikely. Analyst Abdulrahman Salam in Sanaa said the tribal systems that dominate Yemeni life were the biggest impediment.

“Of course it’s hard to know what will happen in the coming days, but the situation here is different because allegiances here lie first with tribes, clans or even families, “ he said.

‘LEAVE BEFORE YOU ARE FORCED TO LEAVE’

Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, is facing soaring unemployment and the oil reserves that buoy its economy are dwindling. Almost half of its population of 23 million lives on $2 a day or less.

Two protests this week at Sanaa University criticised autocratic Arab leaders, including Saleh. Hundreds of protesters held signs with the warning: “Leave before you are forced to leave.”

Economic grievances and political repression are common complaints in all but the wealthiest Gulf countries of the Arab world, where security states have subdued restive young populations through censorship and force.

An unemployed Yemeni youth set himself on fire in the southern province of Baidah on Wednesday, following the example of the young Tunisian vegetable seller whose self-immolation spurred on the popular revolt that eventually ousted Ben Ali and has inspired copycat acts in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.

Yemen’s government is also struggling to quell a resurgent wing of al Qaeda based in the country and cement a fragile truce with Shi’ite rebels in the north.

North and South Yemen united in 1990 under Saleh but the bumpy merger lead to a brief civil war in 1994. Many in the south, home to most of Yemen’s oil wealth, say the state discriminates against them while exploiting their resources.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashef; Writing by Erika Solomon, editing by Diana Abdallah

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