Huge crowds in Yemen as Saleh blames West for unrest

SANAA, Yemen – Massive crowds rallied in cities across Yemen Tuesday as opposition parties joined street demonstrators to quickly reject embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s offer to form a unity government.

Saleh, in a speech to the faculty of Sanaa University, accused Washington and Tel Aviv of orchestrating the wave of unrestcurrently sweeping through the region: “[T]here is an operation room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world,” the longtime ruler said. “It is all run by the White House.”

The allegation–presented without any evidence–appeared to be an increasingly desperate move for a president long supported by the United States.

Saleh, whose country received $300 million in U.S. aid last year, is seen by Washington as a key ally in combating the threat from the Arabian Peninsula’s ambitious branch of al Qaeda. U.S. Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the country in January, the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state since James Baker in 1990.

Among the opposition demonstrators on Tuesday was influential cleric and opposition figure, Sheikh Abdul Majid Zindani, whom the United States has designated a terrorist because of his suspected links to al Qaeda.

Saleh had already made a number of concessions to the opposition, including a promise to step down when his current term ends in 2013, and not to transfer power to his son. But the offer to form a unity government within 24 hours – which he has made and then reneged upon in the past – did little to placate the demonstrators.

“The people are fed up with dialogue”, says Najrabi, 24, a teacher who had stopped at the opposition camp on his way into the university. “It’s been offered before. We just don’t trust him any more.”

Opposition parties had designated Tuesday a “Day of Rage,” and urged its members to join the popular youth-led demonstrations. The crowds were reportedly the largestsince the current wave of demonstrations began on Feb. 11. Demonstrators were jubilant.

“I feel like everybody has finally woken up after sleeping for 33 years,” said Ibrahim Haider, a 19-year-old student.

[Read about the southern Yemeni city of Taiz, a cradle of the country’s rebellion.]

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, said that while Saleh has survived numerous crises in more than three decades of rule, “at the moment he is continuing to act as if he can negotiate from a position of strength. He doesn’t appear to realize that the ground has shifted significantly beneath his feet.”

Last week 10 members of parliament from the ruling GPC Party resigne, and a key tribal leader, Hussein Al Ahmar, pledged his support for the anti-government demonstrators in front a large group of tribesmen in the Amran province.

The parliamentarians say they were angered by the violence used against the demonstrators. London-based human rights group, Amnesty International, says that 27 people have been killed in the unrest so far, 24 of them in the southern port town of Aden.

On Monday evening, thousands of anti-government demonstrators had gathered at a camp that has been up outside the gates of the university, the epicenter of protests here. Silhouetted against the walls of their tents, groups of men sat chewing khat and reading newspapers. In the crowds outside, a bearded sheikh shook hands with two young men in modern clothing. Another carried an infant child on his shoulders, wrapped in a Yemeni flag.

Demonstrators held handmade signs written in Arabic and English. One read, “We want democracy and freedom. Go out!” Another echoed the chant of the demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, “the people want the downfall of the regime.”

Earlier, the opposition movement had been divided, with mostly young protesters calling for Saleh to step down and Saleh’s political opponents calling for reforms and concessions, but not regime change.

But the decision to support the youth protesters this week could signal a more unified opposition to Saleh.

One of the demonstrators gathered at the university was 22-year-old student, Ayman Al Mashrafi, who said he was disenchanted with the opposition coalition. “The opposition isn’t important here, what’s important is the young people,” he said.

“If they want to come with us, they’re welcome,” added Fouad al Shuwaib, 40, an engineer, “but this is our revolution, this is for all Yemenis.” Both agreed that they want any revolution in Yemen to echo those they have witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia, led by young people and without the overt involvement of political parties.

The opposition coalition is in a precarious position, said Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al Iryani. “If they do not engage in dialogue, the situation might deteriorate into serious conflict,” he said. “On the other hand if they engage in negotiations, they fear that they will undermine the youth movement and lose their standing with it and still come out with nothing.”

Some key tribal leaders had openly sided with the demonstrators over the weekend while others announced their support for the president, prompting fears that as different power factions take up opposing positions, a civil war could break out.