SANAA, (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets both for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh Friday, a day after Gulf efforts to revive a plan for him to leave power were stymied by conditions from his party.
Anti-Saleh protesters met for prayers and a rally on the capital Sanaa’s main thoroughfare, Siteen Street, where the crowds stretched back several kilometres in drizzling rain.
“Oh God, topple the tyrant of Yemen,” they shouted. Many released balloons into the air bearing the word “Leave.”
Equally large crowds of Saleh supporters on Sabiyeen Street waved flags and pictures of the president, chanting: “The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh!”
Saleh, a shrewd political survivor who has stayed in power for nearly 33 years, faces his greatest challenge yet in the three months of protests that have drawn hundreds of thousands onto the streets.
But Saleh appeared as defiant as ever Friday, calling his opponents “outlaws” and “forces of terror.”
“Yes to constitutional legitimacy, not to chaos, no to revenge plans … I assure you we will stand together, firm, like the mountains of Ayban and Shamsan,” he told cheering crowds.
ARABS WANT CALM YEMEN
Gulf Arab states including oil giant Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbour, are eager to see peace return to Yemen, an impoverished state struggling to deal with internal rebellions and home to al Qaeda’s active Arabian Peninsula branch.
Many worry that Yemen that could quickly spiral into further violence — half of its 23 million people own a gun.
The Gulf Cooperation Council Thursday offered revisions to its plan, which envisaged a 30-day resignation period for Saleh, until recently backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States as a bulwark against al Qaeda and regional instability.
The plan proposed that 15 members of the ruling party and the opposition ink the deal in Sanaa, as opposed to only Saleh and the head of the opposition.
But the ruling party said Saleh would not sign until after ruling party and opposition representatives signed. Opposition leader Sultan Atwani said his coalition would not accept this:
“We won’t accept unless the president signs as a party to the deal, and we call on the GCC and the United States and the European Union to put pressure on Saleh to sign the initiative.”
Saleh had appeared set to sign the deal, which guarantees him and his family and aides immunity from prosecution, but last week refused to add his name in his capacity as president.
A GCC source told Reuters that Gulf foreign ministers might try to meet in Riyadh Sunday to discuss the crisis.
Anti-Saleh protesters, furious about rampant corruption and poverty, keen to see Saleh held to account, and fearful of being sold out by opposition politicians, are growing impatient.
“We’ll use other means to force him out,” said one, Fahed Mansour. “We’ll escalate a general strike and stop movement in every city. He can’t hold out against our revolution forever.”
As talks stall, Yemen’s economic and fuel crisis worsens. Armed tribesmen have blocked shipments from the oil- and gas-producing Maarib province.
The government and opposition accuse each other of backing the tribes. A shipping source said the cash-strapped government was losing $3 million a day from the loss of its Maarib exports.
Trucks and cars wait in 1-km-long queues in the hope of receiving a fuel ration. Electricity is often cut for up to 10 hours.
Despite the growing pressure, Saleh and his party appeared to move further from the GCC proposal by insisting protests must stop for the deal to go through.
“Success of the initiative requires that both sides stop any elements that could provoke political or security tensions … this will necessarily include an end to sit-ins and protests and acts of sabotage,” a ruling party official said Thursday.
Meanwhile GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani remained “optimistic about achieving the goal in the near future,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted him as saying Thursday.