More than 20,000 Yemenis filled the streets of Sana’a yesterday for a “Day of Rage” rally, demanding a change in government and saying Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s offer to step down in 2013 was not enough.
Further anti-government protests were expected across Yemen, which Saleh has ruled for over three decades, and supporters of the president were driving around the capital urging Yemenis over loudspeakers to join pro-government counterdemonstrations.
By early morning, however, anti-government protesters had already gathered the largest crowd since a wave of protests 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,” protesters shouted as they gathered outside Sana’a University. “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 his son would not take over the reins of government, among a host of other political concessions.
It was his boldest gambit yet to stave off turmoil in Yemen as he sought to avert a showdown with the opposition that might risk sparking an Egypt-style uprising in the deeply impoverished state.
Wael Mansour, an organizer of yesterday’s rally, said Yemenis were not satisfied with Saleh’s concessions.
“Today will bring more, fresh pressure on President Saleh, who will have to present further concessions to the opposition,” he said, without specifying what those concessions might be.
The risks are high for Yemen, 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 Shiite rebels in the north, all in the face of crushing poverty. One-third of Yemenis face chronic hunger.
The US relies heavily on Saleh to help combat al-Qaeda’s regional Yemen-based arm which also targets Saudi Arabia. Instability in Yemen would present serious political and security risks for Gulf states.
US President Barack Obama telephoned Saleh to express support for his initiative, the state news agency Saba said.
“You have handled the situation well, and I look forward to working with you in a good partnership between the two countries,” it quoted Obama as saying.
Meanwhile, in Algeria, the government warned it will be the opposition’s fault if a pro-democracy protest later this month turns violent.
Opposition leaders, human rights groups, unions, students and jobless workers are planning a march on Feb. 12 in Algiers.
They want the government to lift the state of emergency that has been in effect since 1992, end its ban on new political parties and generally be more transparent.
Algerian Deputy Prime Minister Nouredine Yazid Zerhouni reminded organizers on Wednesday that the march was “officially banned.”
“Those who are calling for this march must take responsibility for damage or for things getting out of hand,” Zerhouni told reporters.
The government has no plans to lift its state of emergency, Zerhouni said.