Raed Qassem clamors among hundreds of unkempt Yemenis at a stadium gate for a free lunch, which he says is enough incentive to support Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh against mass demands to end to his 32-year rule.
After grabbing the rice and meat ration, which the ruling General People’s Congress party began distributing when anti-Saleh demonstrations erupted across Yemen last month, Salman heads to a square in the center of the Yemeni capital.
“I will march for Saleh as long as there is food,” the unemployed 45-year-old said.
Saleh supporters occupy the square daily while a larger group — frustrated by corruption, soaring unemployment and by Saleh’s hanging on to power — rally at Sana’a University.
In one venue are an educated youth increasingly being supported by opposition and tribal figures who have been abandoning Saleh, and in the other lies a huge security apparatus and those benefiting from the ruling party’s generosity.
The former are more confident of winning, although Saleh has repeatedly turned down street demands to quit immediately and remove his relatives from the army — his son Ahmed heads the Republican Guards — and -security apparatus.
Dissent across the Arab world in the past few weeks has toppled autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
The main opposition coalition, which rejected a proposal by US- and Saudi-backed Saleh to step down when his term ends this year, said on Monday that protests would escalate.
Shop owners looked on in disgust as Saleh’s supporters, some wielding batons, shoved each other to get their lunch and disrupted traffic in the busy thoroughfare.
“This is what Saleh reduced himself to, feeding thugs to show that he has support,” watch dealer Tawfiq Sadeq said.
Some 26 people have been killed since protests started early last month. In the town of Ibb this week, Saleh loyalists attacked an anti-government protest with stones and batons.