Protesters in Yemen Return to Streets

Sana, Yemen – As thousands of demonstrators for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh took to the streets on Tuesday, a cleric accused by the United States of having links to Al Qaeda joined the protesters for the first time to call for the replacement of the government with an Islamic state.

The call by the cleric, Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, seemed a marked contrast to the upheaval that brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threatens the rulers of Libya, Bahrain, Oman and, to this point, Yemen, where uprisings have been seen as secular and inspired by democratic goals.

Mr. Zindani’s appearance coincided with an unusual display of anti-American sentiment by Mr. Saleh, who accused Washington and Israel of fomenting unrest to destabilize the Arab world — an accusation that seemed more remarkable because the United States has been Mr. Saleh’s most powerful Western backer during his three decades in power.

“From Tunis to the Sultanate of Oman,” Mr. Saleh said, the wave of protest is “managed by Tel Aviv and under the supervision of Washington,” he said.

Soon after he spoke, antigovernment protesters took to the streets, backed for the first time by opposition parties who on Monday rejected a proposal from Mr. Saleh to form a unity government.

Mr. Saleh had suggested including opposition party members in main leadership positions in an effort to quell weeks of sustained protests in several major cities, but the details were left vague and open to negotiation. But Mohammed al-Qubati, a spokesman for the Joint Meetings Parties, a coalition of opposition parties, said: “I stress that this invitation comes too late and is no longer feasible.”

“What is required now to meet the people’s demands is the regime leaving and for authority to meet the will of the people,” he said.

As around 3,000 antigovernment demonstrators gathered, Mr. Zindani, a former mentor of Osama bin Laden, called for Mr. Saleh to step down and described the fervor for reform as an opportunity to set up an Islamic state in Yemen. “An Islamic state is coming,” he said, drawing cries of “God is great” from some in the crowd.

He said Mr. Saleh “came to power by force, and stayed in power by force, and the only way to get rid of him is through the force of the people.” He was guarded by about 10 soldiers while aides held two umbrellas over his head to shade him from the sun.

Since 2004, Mr. Zindani, has been on the United States Treasury list of “specially designated global terrorists” suspected of fund-raising for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He has been described as a revered spiritual leader and a onetime theological adviser to Osama bin Laden.

In the past, he has publicly opposed terrorism, if not jihad, or holy war, and his word carries considerable political and moral weight in Yemen. For many years, he maintained ties with President Saleh even though he was a founder of the Islamic opposition Al Islah Party.

Some in the crowd said they supported his appearance because of his position against the president. “Yes, he is a big influence,” said Saleh Al Garani, 25, an unemployed anti-government protester. “But what’s important is that he says ‘get out.’ We all agree because he says Saleh has to go.”

Others said Mr. Zindani’s appearance at the demonstration did not denote a broader Islamic influence on the Yemeni protests. The cleric has been a supporter of Mr. Saleh for five years, said Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani, a political analyst. “Now he has jumped ship because he’s seen that Saleh is slowly losing his power base and therefore he wanted to be with the winning side. That’s all there is to it,” Mr. Iryani said.

But to judge from the numbers on Tuesday, the pro-government camp seemed to have gathered some strength, mustering one of its biggest crowds in weeks of turmoil.

Samir Ali, a 35-year-old mobile phone company worker, said that Tuesday was his first day joining the pro-government side. “Yes, we have corruption. Yes, there is oppression. But the government is trying to fix these things,” he said.

He also referred to a meeting on Monday between Mr. Saleh and Yemeni religious scholars. “People like me, independents, we know that the opposition has a point, “ Mr. Ali said. “But when the religious scholars say something, then we follow.”

At times, both demonstrations had a party-like atmosphere, even though the opposition had billed it as a “day of rage.”

Men on the pro-government side danced in the streets, waving aloft the traditional, curved daggers worn by many Yemeni men. They also modified their opponents’ favored slogan — “the people want the regime to fall” — and instead, chanted: “The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

This article “Protesters in Yemen Return to Streets” originally appeared at The New York Times.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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