Yemeni Youth Square Off With Forces
By Laura Kasinof and J. David Goodman
The New York Times
February 13, 2011
SANA, Yemen — Young protesters in Yemen squared off against security forces on Sunday, and some marched on the presidential palace here, witnesses said, as a third day of demonstrations sought to emulate the revolution in Egypt.
The protests, organized largely via text message, were the largest yet by young Yemenis, with more than 1,000 marching. And it appeared to mark a rift with opposition groups who had organized previous demonstrations that wrested significant concessions from President Ali Abdullah Saleh, including the promise that he would relinquish power in 2013.
Those established opposition groups did not join the crowd on Sunday, which was calling for the immediate ouster of the president. After the initial demonstration, a smaller group of young protesters peeled off and marched toward the presidential palace, only to be violently repulsed by armed security forces both uniformed and in plain clothes, some armed with stun guns, witnesses said. There were reports of several injuries, but no deaths.
“The J.M.P. in our opinion — the opinion of the students — is that they move in stages,” said a 30-year-old protester, Mohamed Mohsin, referring to the Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of opposition parties. “But we go to the demonstrations to send the message to the leadership now.”
Unlike the earlier protests in Yemen, which were highly organized and marked by color-coordinated clothing and signs, the spontaneity of the younger demonstrators appeared to have more in common with popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where opposition groups watched from the sidelines as leaderless revolts grew into revolutions.
The opposition coalition said at a news conference in Sana, the capital, on Sunday that it welcomed the new street protests, but cautioned that the situation could quickly escalate if mass uprisings took hold in Yemen, a country with a well-armed populace. “If the people on the streets take the lead, we will say thank you for that,” said Yassin Saeed Noman, a socialist party leader, adding that the opposition “should deal wisely with this big movement.”
The opposition group said that 120 people had been arrested in protests on Saturday and Sunday in Taiz, a poverty-stricken town about a four-hour drive south of the capital, as waves of youthful unrest spread to new places.
Sheik Hamid al-Ahmar, an opposition leader, said in an interview on Sunday that political leaders had tried to prevent the younger demonstrators from taking to the streets to demand immediate changes to the autocratic rule of Mr. Saleh. But, he said, “It’s not that they aren’t cooperating with the new protests,” only that opposition leaders would like to move more slowly.
Mr. Saleh, an important ally of the United States in the fight against terrorism, has in recent weeks sought to counter a rising tide of opposition and preserve his three-decade rule by raising army salaries, halving income taxes and ordering price controls, among other concessions.
Since Hosni Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt on Friday, police officers, some of them armed, have filled Sana’s central square — which, like its Cairo counterpart, is called Tahrir Square — blocking access with concertina wire to prevent protesters from gathering. Witnesses reported seeing men in plain clothes with AK-47s on the street.
“This is a revolution across the whole Arab world,” said Jalal Bakry, an unemployed protester standing in front of the main entrance to Sana University. “If those in Tahrir Square want to kill me, that’s O.K. We will still be peaceful.”
A text message sent around on Sunday called on Yemenis to “participate in the student and youth revolution in a demonstration to demand the removal of the leader and to celebrate the Egyptian revolution, tomorrow at 9 a.m. in the front of the main gate of Sana University.” Protesters also posted messages on Facebook to rally supporters on Sunday, but social networking sites remain less of an organizing tool in Yemen than in Tunisia and Egypt because of low Internet penetration.
Even before large-scale protests first began in January, a rebellion in the north and a struggle for secession in the south have threatened the fragile stability of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. The government’s precarious hold on control has been a source of concern for the United States, which has received support from Mr. Saleh to fight the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda.
In a visit to Sana this month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged dialogue between Mr. Saleh and the opposition in the interest of preserving stability.
At its news conference on Sunday, the opposition coalition said it would be willing to restart talks with the ruling party if specific conditions were met, like including members of the southern separatist movement in the dialogue.
While the aims of Yemen’s southern secessionist movement are different from the political opposition’s in Sana, they too have claimed inspiration from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Demonstrations throughout the southern port city Aden have increased in number over the past two weeks despite high security citywide, and last Friday, thousands protested throughout Yemen’s south.
“In Egypt they chanted ‘The people want to expel the system,’ but we chant ‘The people want to cut the ties,’ ” said Wagdy al-Shaaby, a secessionist protester who marched on Friday in the southern city of Zinjibar.
It remained unclear to what degree a widening popular uprising could set off renewed armed clashes in the south. Protests across the south have been notably more violent than those in the country’s north.
Southern separatists have called for the creation of an independent state and are therefore less committed to reforming or even toppling Mr. Saleh’s government. Its leaders are divided over how much they should work with the opposition coalition in Sana.
Laura Kasinof reported from Sana, and J. David Goodman from New York.