Demonstrators inspired by the Tunisian uprising shout slogans at an anti-government… (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters )
Reporting from Cairo and Beirut — The current unrest in the Middle East spread to impoverished Yemen on Thursday as tens of thousands of protesters angry over unemployment and political oppression marched in the capital against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Instability in Yemen is a major concern for Washington, which has been working with Saleh's government to defeat an entrenched Al Qaeda offshoot that claimed responsibility for last year's attempted bombings of planes over U.S. airspace. Officials fear anarchy in the country would give militants a strategic base in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, has been unable to stem unemployment and improve education, healthcare and sanitation in the region's poorest nation. Anger toward him and his government has been steadily growing, especially among young activists and tribal leaders. He has also faces an intensifying secessionist movement in the south.
The U.S. has expanded its intelligence and security roles in the country, and American military aid is expected to reach at least $250 million this year, a major increase from previous years. But Washington has long been wary of Saleh, who runs a government based on patronage networks and has a history making questionable deals with enemies, including Islamic militants, who years ago were tolerated.
"I saw many, many people today, in the thousands," said Ahmed Arman, a human rights lawyer in the capital, Sana. "There were four demonstrations and they were organized by the opposition. The majority of the demonstrators were young people, but there were others there as well. They're calling for political change, a complete reform of the political system."
The demonstrations unfolded as the region brimmed with anger and frustration that have sparked protests against authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. Some Yemeni protesters joked that Saleh should "go the way" of former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who fled his country Jan. 14 after a popular uprising.
"I helped the students in organizing sit-ins after the Tunisian revolt," Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni activist recently released from jail after organizing demonstrations, told The Times. "There have been daily protests in Sana. I was arrested for a day because of the demonstrations and let out yesterday. The student protests will for sure continue."
Yemen is a "democratic multi-party country that allows people to express their views in accordance with the related laws," Interior Minister Mutaher al-Masri was quoted as saying by the country's Saba news agency. "We do not need chaos that harms public security and abuses democracy."
The protests took place on a day of rival rallies between opposition parties and government loyalists. Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee reported on his website:
"No violence, or riot cases were noticed, but security measures were exceptional in the city as anti-riot forces were deployed in almost all the places close to the rallies," he said. "However, these rallies are not new, not strange. Both sides have been holding similar rallies over the last two weeks in the provinces outside Sana."
Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, said in a statement: "We are pleased to announce that no major clashes or arrests occurred, and police presence was minimal."
Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Sandels from Beirut.