Regime faces intensified opposition protests

Thousands of people demonstrated in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa last Thursday in the largest protest against corruption and lack of democratic reform in what the opposition dubbed a ‘Day of Rage’. The BBC reported over 20,000 protesters have taken to the streets in capital Sana’a calling for the immediate resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

According to SABA news agency, protesters included “civil society organizations, trade unions, social figures and women” and numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The scenes of protest rallies in Sanaa were unprecedented as thousands of angry protesters took to the streets. Protests took place in seven provinces.

The protest was even larger than last week’s rally, which prompted Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president, who has ruled for more than 30 years, to promise he would step down in 2013 and would not hand over power to his son.

Opposition leaders, however, said the speech was not enough, and refused to call off Thursday’s protest, which took place in Sana’a and in other urban areas. In Sana’a, the crowds chanted “no more speeches, they lead us nowhere”.

Demonstrators formed human chains at the roads leading to the protest to stop violent infiltrators. “We won’t let anyone crash this demonstration and sow strife. We must guarantee that these protests are peaceful,” said Haider al-Alimi, a student.

“Our uprising could be more powerful than in Tunisia or Egypt,” said Abdullah al-Faqih, another protester.

Yemen was already at risk of instability before the North African protests erupted. It suffers from endemic corruption, chronic water shortages, an insurgency in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, heavily armed tribes, a flourishing al-Qaeda presence and soaring youth unemployment.

Egypt’s turmoil and the revolt in Tunisia inspired Yemen’s opposition, who turned out in unprecedented numbers in Sanaa and other cities to demand the departure of the longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"Thirty years of promises and thirty years of lies," one protest banner read. Protesters chanted: "Down, down with the regime."

Estimates of the number of anti-government protesters ranged in the tens of thousands across the country. However, pro-government demonstrations, though smaller, reflected a calculated effort to undermine the opposition, possibly a lesson learned from the huge street rallies that have rocked the Egyptian government since 25 January. Scuffles and stone-throwing erupted briefly between the two sides, but police intervened to keep the sides apart and there were no reported casualties. Some of the pro-government ‘supporters were state employees. Many young people in the pro-Saleh demonstration told the reporters that they are unemployed and were paid to participate in the demonstration. But even among the pro-Saleh demonstrators, there was a sense that life would never be the same. Ali Nasser, a civil engineer in the military, candidly said that he and other state employees had been ordered to come and show support for Saleh.

Yahya Nashwan, a water ministry employee, said that government salaries had been delayed and that his superiors had indicated he should attend the rally if he wanted to receive his pay. "It was pressure on us to come out and support the president," he said. Some protesters said Saleh loyalists had told them to come to the protests. Taha Abdullah Abdu, 21 years old, said the sheik of his village, a member of the ruling party, had ordered him and other villagers to come. Then Abdu quickly added: "We love the president."

Regime sponsored ‘protests’

The opposition accused the regime of sponsoring protests to try to give the impression to the outside world that Saleh still enjoys the support of the masses. The anti-Saleh rallies and protests outnumbered the pro-Saleh rallies across the country.

In San’aa, pro-government demonstrators marched to Tahrir Square, which shares the same name as the plaza in Cairo, where the street fighting occurred Wednesday and into Thursday. The demonstrators carried banners supporting Saleh and warning that the opposition was trying to “destabilize Yemen”.

The opposition rally lasted only a few hours, but the protest leaders say this is only the beginning. They are calling for immediate and radical reforms, though some of them added they were not yet calling for the resignation of the president. After the crowd dispersed on Thursday, a group of about 150 opposition students formed a circle on the street and began a sit-in.

"We won’t leave until the president goes," they chanted. When it was time for the noon prayer, they lined up and prayed for change.

Despite President Saleh’s call to protesters to cancel their planned rallies, both pro- and anti-government demonstrators gathered in different parts of Sanaa.

"The people want regime change," anti-government protesters shouted as they gathered outside Sanaa University. "No to corruption, no to dictatorship!" they chanted.

President Saleh had sought to defuse demands for his removal by pledging last Wednesday not to seek another term in office - his term expires in 2013 - and saying he would not let his son inherit power. However, proposed amendments to the constitution could let Saleh stay in office for two additional terms of 10 years.

Anti-government protesters, several thousand of whom marched from Sanaa University, said they do not trust Saleh and demanded that he quit immediately. There was a heavy security presence around the interior ministry and the central bank. Military helicopters were hovering in some areas. Thousands of security personnel were deployed to control the protests and to show the strength of the regime.

In Aden city, thousands of anti-government protesters defied security forces and armoured personnel carriers that tried to close the main streets to prevent them from gathering. Scuffles broke out in the southern port city of Aden when security forces broke up a protest with tear gas, and two people were wounded.

Protesters shouted: "People want the downfall of the regime, the downfall of the president." 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. All big shops in Sana’a and Aden closed their doors and major companies hired guards to protect against possible looting.

Protesters also scuffled with security forces in the town of Jaar in the southern province of Abyan, where al Qa’eda militants have been active.

At least 22 people were arrested by Yemeni security forces in Aden province while they participated in a rally organized by the opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties, JMP.

Protesters in the rally chanted anti-government slogans and urged the ouster of the regime, "We need freedom. Get out!"

An eyewitness said that Yemeni authorities in Aden tightened the measures of security in an attempt to stop protesters from participating in an anti-government rally.

Yet analysts say only a large showing from traditionally non-aligned Yemenis and discontented youths, facing soaring unemployment and meager incomes, would create a watershed moment for farther-reaching unrest in Yemen.

But 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. The JPM leadership is willing to let president Saleh rule till 2013, if he takes concrete steps to fulfill the opposition demands. Some observers and experts believe that the protesters want dialogue aimed at finding a new settlement, rather than overthrowing the regime.

But the overwhelming majority of the students and youth who are the backbone of the protest movement want to see the back of the president immediately and want an end to the tyranny and repression. They wanted political freedom and democratic rights. Many young protesters told the BBC that they wanted jobs, better opportunities and democracy, in which they must have a say to running the country. They are also against making any deal with the ruling party. But the leadership seems desperate to strike a power-sharing deal with President Saleh to enter into a national unity government. The demands written on the banners and placards clearly reflect this conflicting mood.

Some opposition activists are likely to be satisfied with Saleh’s concessions. But the majority is not ready to trust him. Speaking before the president agreed to step down, Mohamad al-Mutawakel, of the Common Forum Opposition Alliance said: "I think Mr. Abdullah Saleh will learn from Egypt and Tunisia... he is clever enough to make a change." But he added: "If he doesn’t make political reform and have free elections, it will be Tunisia."

The Common Forum includes the five biggest opposition groups in Yemen, including Reform, socialists, Nasserists, the Popular Force and al-Haq.

"As political parties, we think if we can solve this problem in a peaceful way it will be better for Yemen because everyone has guns," said Mutawakel. This is the big concern. Yemen is a semi- tribal society and weapons are widely available. It is the poorest country in the region and literacy levels are low.

The storm of change has hit Yemen, as the unified opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), promised to continue protests until Saleh gives in to their demands for political reforms. The opposition has refused to sit at the same table with what they call "the corrupt regime of Saleh" since the latest ‘national dialogue’ to discuss political reforms broke down in October.

Opposition leaders’ rhetoric

But for all its posturing and rhetoric, the opposition has allowed the president to keep strong links with their leaders.

On many occasions, party leaders have openly opposed the president during news conferences, only to sit with Sale later in the day behind closed doors.

Experts believe that opposition parties are still not ready to govern and there is no obvious successor to Saleh.

Unlike Tunisia, Yemen’s six opposition parties are united under the umbrella of the JMP, however, Ali Jaradi, the editor-in-chief of Yemen’s independent Ahale newspaper, said the situation could quickly change. "Currently, the JMP is uniting the opposition against one person, which is Saleh." But when he is "out of the picture, disputes among them will start due to them being from six differently ideological political parties".

The Yemeni political analyst Mohammed al Khaberi said the goal of Yemen’s largest opposition party, Islah, is not to rule but to change the regime and ensure a transparent government. All other JMP parties want the opposite, and are craving the seat of the government. They see Islah as a block in front of their political ambitions.

"President Saleh will use this point against the Islah and most likely bribe other opposition leaders with high ranks in government in return for splitting from the JMP," said al Khaberi.

Over the past two years, the ruling party, the General People’s Congress, has desperately tried to split apart the JMP coalition. During a speech earlier this month, Saleh called on the Islah party to participate in the April parliamentary elections. He stated that the other JMP parties, which have only one or two seats, were not strong enough to participate. Islah has 47 of 301 seats in parliament, and the JMP opposed the election in April because it was called before an end to the national dialogue on reforms agreed with the president.

Opposition leaders confirmed that Saleh offered smaller parties in the JMP some posts in the government if they joined his side. A month earlier, Saleh promised the ‘Socialist Party’ the majority of seats in southern Yemen, if they withdrew from the JMP. As expected, the party refused.

Hasan Zaid, the secretary general of the Haq Party, said Saleh prefers to deal with each party separately to exploit their differences. The president has called him numerous times, he said, and tried to persuade him to join his coalition.

"Even if we refuse to sit with him alone, he calls us. Saleh tries to keep a strong relationship with opposition leaders even if they differ in opinion, and that is why his rule will not fall easily."

Sources close to Saleh said he is in shock at how quickly President Mubarak lost control of Egypt. The president knows that if a ruler as powerful as Mubarak falls then he would stand no chance if the people revolt.

Mohammed al Saadi, Islah’s deputy secretary general, said Saleh should learn from what has happened to other leaders in the region - and that the president’s hubris may lead to his downfall.

The movement has started to grow in Yemen. The workers and some trade unions have also started to take part. Although the trade unions are not participating with an independent banner and demands workers’ participation will change the mood and content of this movement. The opposition parties are not willing to take this movement into a revolutionary direction. The opposition parties want to maintain the same capitalist system which has created miserable conditions for the masses.

The workers and poor in Yemen cannot trust the JMP as real alternative. The JMP is using these protests to make political gains instead of fighting for real change. Workers, young people and the poor need to build their own political voice and organization, which can fight for their interests and bring real social and political change. The left and trade union movement must forge an independent struggle to overthrow the rotten Saleh regime and to establish a government of the workers and poor of the country.

The CWI stands for the full recognition of all democratic rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and for an immediate end to the state of emergency. We call for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Yemen. Yemen’s future must not be decided by a deal between the Saleh regime and pro-capitalist opposition leaders; instead there must be free and fully democratic elections for a revolutionary constituent assembly, where representatives of the workers and poor could decide the country’s future.

End the neo-liberal onslaught and free market economic policies and nationalisation of Yemen’s big corporations, the banks and large estates and their democratic planning to meet the needs of the masses not an elite.

For a socialist Yemen and a socialist confederation of the region, on an equal and voluntary basis

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