Observed by: Mr. Alaa Isam
Yemen’s government weathered the biggest protests seen in the capital in decades on Thursday after the country’s strongman president made concessions to popular demands for his retirement.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president, promised not to seek re-election in 2013, on the eve of an opposition organised “day of rage” demonstration. But he also mobilised groups of armed supporters to stage counter-protests and the security services stopped opposition sympathisers making it to the streets.
More than 20,000 people nonetheless defied threats and intimidation to demand Mr Saleh’s immediate resignation. Anti-government protesters who had gathered near Sanaa University chanted: “The people want regime change. No to corruption, no to dictatorship.”
Mr Saleh, an important US ally against al Qaeda, failed to pacify their demands with a pledge that he would not seek re-election in 2013. He had responded to earlier protests, which have been inspired by the Tunisian uprising that deposed President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, by promising his son would not be groomed for the presidency.
The Yemeni protesters had been planning to hold their rally in Sanaa’s Tahrir Square, which shares its name with the plaza in Cairo that has become the focal point for attempts to oust Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president.
But, raising fears of violence in one of the Middle East’s most volatile states, the square was occupied overnight by supporters of Mr Saleh, many of them carrying firearms and portraits of the president. They erected tents, suggesting that they planned to hold the square for a sustained period.
There were also large protests in southern towns where a separatist movement has grown increasingly active.
Many of the protesters demanded Mr Saleh’s immediate resignation. “What the president offered was just theatre, I don’t trust him,” said Mahmoud Abdullah in Sanaa.
At least 20 were arrested and clashes were reported between pro- and anti-government demonstrators.
Mr Saleh first emerged as leader of North Yemen in 1978. He has ruled the Republic of Yemen since the north and south merged in 1990.
Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, his son, holds the rank of brigadier and has become increasingly visible in government affairs.