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Tue 22 Feb 2011 04:28 PM

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Pro-Saleh demos fail to mask Yemen disenchantment

Saleh supporters say he has kept country together; Yemen's unemployed see little benefit from his rule

Pro-Saleh demos fail to mask Yemen disenchantment
YEMEN PRESIDENT: Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh (Getty Images)

Loyalists of
President Ali Abdullah Saleh occupy a main square, street vendors sell his
posters and loudspeakers mounted on cars blast songs in his praise as they
speed along rundown streets of the Yemeni capital.

The
state-backed show of support is the government's response to protests against
Saleh's 32-year rule that have intensified over the past week and claimed the
lives of at least a dozen people.

"Thanks
to Saleh, Yemen has remained one. I do not want him to fall," said retiree
Hussein al-Yassin as he fastened two red, white and black Yemeni flags on his
car.

"Those
behind the unrest are southerners being financed from the outside," said
Yassin, repeating official views that unidentified outside forces have been
behind the unrest.

Asked to
name Saleh's achievements - around 40 percent of Yemenis do not have access to
clean water and a similar proportion are illiterate - Yassin points to Saleh
Mosque, a huge edifice built in 2008 for $60m.

"The
president had little time to do anything else. Yemen is a very tribal
place," Yassin said.

Like other
Arab leaders, shaken by mass protests that have toppled the leaders of Tunisia
and Egypt, Saleh has been forced to react. A shrewd political survivor, he
promised earlier this month to leave office when his current term ends in 2013
-- although he did the same in 2006 and ran again for office anyway, winning
with 77 percent of the vote.

The
cash-strapped government is not only trying to quell a resurgent regional wing
of al Qaeda based in Yemen, next door to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia. It is
also trying to suppress an increasingly violent separatist movement in south
Yemen and cement an uneasy ceasefire with Shi'ite rebels in the north.

The
stability argument isn't accepted by Yemen's unemployed.

"Those
who support Saleh are the ones who benefit from his rule," said Ahmad Al
Sharif, a 25-year old unemployed technician. "Even if he is a good man,
the corruption that he has allowed by the people around him is
inexcusable."

Yemen's
average per capita income is only $1,100 per year and the country is excluded
altogether from the Global Competiveness Report published by the World Economic
Forum.

Saleh said
protesters demanding an end to his presidency cannot achieve their goal through
"anarchy and killing".

His
supporters have pitched tents in Sanaa's main Tahrir (Liberation) square, which
shares its name with the Cairo plaza that became the focus of Egypt's mass
protests.

At Sanaa
University, students prevented from reaching the square camped in front of the
campus. One banner read "the people want the overthrow of the
regime", the phrase used by Egyptian protesters and now echoing around the
Arab world.

The
atmosphere was tense but relatively calm, although it is not unusual for
Yemenis to carry guns.

Opposition
parliamentarian Abdulmoez Dabwan said the country's prevalence of weapons would
discourage a violent clampdown by authorities, but an officer in the security
apparatus, who declined to be named, was not optimistic.

"I met
the president recently. He is being ill advised and thinks that the protesters
are saboteurs. God save Yemen," he said, pointing to Yemen's complex mix
of tribes and sects.

Novelist Ali
Al Muqri said, however, he was confident that the future "cannot be worse
than the present".

"Yemen
may be a fractured society," Muqri wrote in the International Herald
Tribune. "But I have faith that we can unite against a nepotistic regime
that has plundered our resources and given us little but misery."