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Thu 3 Feb 2011 12:09 PM

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Thousands take to Yemen's streets in 'day of rage'

More than 20,000 demonstrators gather in mass protest against President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Thousands take to Yemen's streets in 'day of rage'
YEMEN PROTESTS: Shops and banks closed as demonstrators chanted slogans for and against the ruling party as part of a nationwide protest the opposition dubbed Day of Rage (Getty Images)
Thousands take to Yemen's streets in 'day of rage'
Thousands take to Yemen's streets in 'day of rage'

Thousands of Yemeni pro- and anti- government protesters inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt flooded their capital of Sana’a on Thursday as the president vowed to step down at the end of his term.

Shops and banks closed as demonstrators chanted slogans for and against the ruling party as part of a nationwide protest the opposition dubbed “Day of Rage.”

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for three decades, said yesterday that he won’t seek to extend his term when it expires in 2013 and called for the formation of a national unity government.

“Twice he’s said before that he won’t run for elections and both times he went and ran, and won,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The people are skeptical.”

Tunisia’s former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on Jan. 14 after public protests against rising prices and unemployment turned into a revolt. Egyptians continued to protest in the streets on Thursday, clashing with pro-government demonstrators, after Egypt’s ruler of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, said he would step down as president later this year. Jordan’s King Abdullah replaced his prime minister this week, vowing the move would “strengthen democracy” in the Arab country.

“What we are seeing in Egypt and what we saw in Tunisia is an inspiration for the 300 million Arabs all over the Arab world,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of politics at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain. “We see it resonating on Thursday in Yemen and I think we will see it all over.”

Saleh, a US ally, is struggling against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group responsible for sending two parcel bombs to U.S. synagogues in October and the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009. Yemen also faces an internal uprising in the north and a secessionist movement in the south of the country.

“There has been mobilizing in the streets and this will lead to chaos,” Saleh told legislators yesterday. “We will make this concession for the interest of the country.”

On Thursday demonstrators who supported the government chanted “No to chaos and destruction, yes to stability!” while their anti-Saleh counterparts shouted “No to corruption and no to looting public money!”

Aidarous al-Nakeeb, head of the opposition socialist party bloc in parliament, said the president’s announcement yesterday failed to address an urgent need for changes, and the opposition will continue their protests until those measures are met.

“The president has not given anything new except the announcement on freezing the constitutional amendments, which rescues his party from the trap it set for itself,” al-Nakeeb said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Yemen’s parliament earlier this year gave preliminary approval to a proposal to eliminate term limits, a measure that would allow Saleh to stay in power past the end of his mandate.

Saleh became leader of North Yemen in 1978, and has ruled the Republic of Yemen since the north and south merged in 1990. His son, Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, has for years served as an adviser to his father and it was widely believed that he was being groomed for the presidency, said Ibrahim Sharqieh, a Yemen expert and deputy director for the Brookings Doha Center. In his parliamentary address yesterday, Saleh said that he wouldn’t have his son succeed him.

The 301-seat parliament is dominated by the ruling General People’s Congress. Several other parties are represented in the legislature, including the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, the main opposition party.

Following protests in the capital, Saleh last week ordered that 500,000 families be included in the Arabian Peninsula country’s social security program, the official Saba news agency reported Jan. 31. Saleh also ordered the creation of a fund to support university graduates and facilitate their employment.

Growth in the $30 billion economy is expected to slow to 4.1 percent this year from 8 percent in 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Yemen has a per-capita output of about $1,100 a year and one of the world’s most acute water shortages, according to the World Bank.

Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace ranked Yemen 15th of 60 countries on their 2010 Failed States Index, saying only Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan are in worse shape among nations in Asia and the Middle East.