x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Yemen opposition wary of Saleh pledge as rival groups square off

'Day of Rage' draws biggest crowds in Sana'a since protests began against Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Yemeni protesters give the 'victory' sign during an anti-government demonstration in Sana'a yesterday.
Yemeni protesters give the 'victory' sign during an anti-government demonstration in Sana'a yesterday.

SANA'A // A day after President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he would step down in 2013, tens of thousands of Yemenis squared off in peaceful protests for and against the government yesterday during an opposition-led "Day of Rage".

The opposition drew more than 20,000 people in Sana'a, the biggest crowd since demonstrations began in the country two weeks ago, inspired by protests in Tunisia and Egypt.

They demanded political reform, jobs, more help for the poor and higher pay for the military, security and civil servants.

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in front of Sana'a University.

The protests were organised by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of six groups that includes the Islamist Islah party, the country's biggest opposition party.

Meanwhile, thousands rallied in Sana'a's central Tahrir Square, and in other provinces in support of Mr Saleh. The rallies were organised by the ruling General People's Congress.

Pro-Saleh demonstrators chanted "no to chaos and instability, yes to president's initiative" as they marched in the city centre.

Some government employees said they were paid to go to the rallies.

"We want President Saleh. We do not want the chaos of Tunisia and Egypt," said one demonstrator, Samir Mohammed.

Across Yemen, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets including in Taiz, where Mr Saleh once served as military governor, and in southern towns where a separatist movement has grown increasingly active. Yet analysts say only a large showing from traditionally non-aligned Yemenis and disgruntled youths will create significant unrest in Yemen for change.

Scuffles broke out in Aden when security forces broke up a protest with tear gas, and two people were wounded. Security men arrested 20 protesters, an opposition spokesman said.

There were initial fears that violence could break out yesterday. Shops, businesses and banks shut down. Some private companies gave their employees leave as the security presence was increased at major public and private institutions, as well as foreign embassies.

In Sana'a, the protesters carried Yemeni flags and wore pink cloths around their heads to demonstrate they were peaceful. They chanted anti-government slogans: "the people want to change the president", "no to corruption and no to looting public money!"

One banner read: "Understand us before it is too late … no to the rule of one family."

Mr Saleh, 68, who has been in power for nearly 32 years, said on Wednesday that he would not seek another term or transfer power to his son.

"I won't seek to extend my presidency for another term or have my son inherit it," Mr Saleh told an emergency meeting of the parliament. "No resetting the clock."

Yemen's parliament last month gave preliminary approval to a constitutional change that would allow Mr Saleh to stay in power past 2013.

Some protesters said they did not have confidence that he was serious about standing down.

One protester, Mahmoud Abdullah, said in Sana'a: "What the president offered yesterday was just theatre. I don't trust him." Another, Hani Hussein, 27, said: " We have no confidence in the president's initiative because he said before he will step down and broke his promise." Another banner, referring to Mr Saleh, read: "We are fed up with repeated speeches and false calls." In 2005, Mr Saleh announced that he would not run for another term, only to change his mind a year later. He was elected in 2006 to a seven-year term.

The largest protest in Sana'a was attended by opposition leaders.

Najeeb Ghanim, a senior member of the Islah party, told the protesters: "It is time for change, time for the Yemeni people to have a decent life, time to break the chains and put an end to exclusion and marginalisation."

Mr Saleh reiterated his call to the JMP to return to dialogue with his party. He also ordered the official voters' register to accommodate new voters, a step he said would lead to the postponement of the parliamentary election that was scheduled for April. "The president's initiative is not enough and his words need to be translated into action.

The people need guarantees and the first should be a fair and free election, where the ruling party has no power over the public wealth, state media and military," Mr Ghanim said.

In a statement distributed at the rally, the JMP called for guarantees to implement the agreements that were made in 2009 between the JMP and the ruling party.

They called for the end of price increases and corruption and demanded better living conditions, as well as keeping the military and security institutions away from Mr Saleh's family.