SANAA – Tens of thousands of protesters amassed Thursday at Sanaa University for a “day of rage” calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while a similar number of government loyalists flooded a central square.
“We are here to bring down a corrupt and tyrannical regime,” Najib Ghanem, a lawmaker from the Islamist Al-Islah party that is part of the Common Forum alliance of opposition parties, told the sea of anti-Saleh protesters.
“The revolt for justice began in Tunisia. It continues today in Egypt, and Yemen tomorrow will be free from injustice,” he said, referring to a popular revolt that led to the Tunisian president’s fall, and protests in Egypt seeking the departure of its president.
Various speakers from the Common Forum addressed the massive crowd, repeating the same message: We will continue our peaceful struggle until the fall of this unjust regime.
The demonstration, the biggest since protests against Saleh’s rule first erupted in mid-January, came despite the president announcing Wednesday that he would not seek another term and that he had postponed controversial April elections — two key opposition demands.
Pro-Saleh demonstrators were also out in force, with tens of thousands of loyalists — about the same-sized crowd as the anti-regime protesters — gathering in Al-Tahrir Square to pledge their support for Saleh.
They carried banners reading, “We are with Ali Abdullah Saleh. We are with Yemen,” “The opposition wants to destroy Yemen” and “No to destruction, no to sedition.”
The opposition’s plans were thrown into disarray when armed supporters of Saleh’s General People’s Congress took over Al-Tahrir Square, the initial protest venue, on Wednesday night, setting up tents and carrying portraits of the president.
With more loyalists arriving at dawn, protest organisers were forced to drive through the streets blaring out over megaphones that the venue had been changed to Sanaa University, about two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the square.
They blamed the change on the fact that “the men of the ruling party and their armed elements are holding Al-Tahrir.”
The switch in venue did little to dampen the enthusiasm of protesters, who swarmed to the university, carrying banners reading, “The people demand a change” of regime, and “No to a hereditary regime, no to an extension of mandate.” Saleh pledged he would not seek either on Wednesday.
Protesters expressed solidarity with Egyptian demonstrators who were on Thursday staging a 10th day of increasingly bloody protests against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
“May God help the Egyptian people against the tyrant Hosni Mubarak,” the protesters chorused, while police stood at a distance.
Facing increasingly angry demands that he quit, Saleh on Wednesday announced that he would not seek another term as president and would freeze plans to change the constitution that would have enabled him to remain president for life.
He also said he was opposed to hereditary rule, a response to suspicion among critics that was grooming his eldest son Ahmed Saleh, who commands an elite unit of the Yemeni army, to succeed him as president.
In what appeared to be yet another bid to stave off the kind of mass anti-regime protests that have swept Tunisia and Egypt and which have rippled throughout the Arab world, Saleh also announced he would postpone controversial elections due in April.
And he urged the government to take measures against unemployment and ordered that social security coverage be extended.
Mohammed al-Sabri of the Common Forum said on Wednesday that Saleh’s call to halt protests was “unacceptable.” However, he said the group would “discuss the president’s announcement.”
“We are for total, serious and responsible dialogue, but not the dialogue offered by” Saleh, Sabri told AFP on Thursday.
“The president needs to implement practical measures on the ground,” he said.
“The people are fed up with corruption, with wars. We need a change in the situation. The people want freedom and fair elections,” Sabri added.
There have been clashes during previous protests against Saleh, including on January 29, when dozens of activists calling for his ouster fought with regime supporters in Sanaa. Plain-clothes police also attacked demonstrators.
But the Thursday demonstrations ended without clashes, according to AFP correspondents.
Both pro- and anti-regime protesters dispersed around midday, the time many Yemenis relax and chew qat leaves, a mild narcotic that is wildly popular in the impoverished Arabian peninsula country.