Yemen's Big Protests: Saleh's Opponents Get Critical Mass

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Antigovernment protesters attend a rally in Taiz, Yemen, on Feb. 25, 2011

It's been a tough month for the small number of Yemeni students and human-rights activists camped out in front of Sana'a University. They have been beaten, shot and, worst of all, ignored. Everyday Yemenis — those who work in offices, shops, juice bars, restaurants, even those who are unemployed — have stayed away, fearing arrest.

That all changed on Friday, Feb. 25. More than 100,000 protesters rallied across the country. In the capital alone, a horde of about 30,000 gathered outside Sana'a University — which has become the local equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square — to demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down. After government loyalists shot and killed two protesters on the night of Feb. 22, numbers were guaranteed to soar, but Friday's turnout shocked even the most optimistic protesters.

Adil al-Surabi, 29, a student, had desperately been trying to boost numbers by using social-networking websites, but he'd had little luck because the Internet is not prevalent in this impoverished country. During Friday's protests, however, he stood shoulder to shoulder with tribesmen from Yemen's eastern deserts and struggling shopkeepers from the poorest areas of Sana'a. "The tribes are finally joining us," he told TIME in a small red tent he has camped in for the past two weeks.

On Friday, the motley crew of educated youth, rural tribesmen, the unemployed and the disillusioned joined together under a midday sun, tens of thousands outside Sana'a University, in lines stretching more than a mile up the road. Using their scarves as prayer mats, the unlikely mix bent down in unison on their hands and knees to pray before rising together to chant against the regime.

Why the sudden surge? Analysts say tribal leaders preferred to watch from the sidelines to see how the demonstrations played out, worried about committing to a cause that could fail. Now, it seems, a critical mass has been reached, and some tribes and opposition groups are sending members to join the students. Ordinary Yemenis, who previously had feared arrest for protesting, now find safety in numbers.

Nasser al-Saber, a scarf-clad tribesman from Marib, a sandy province in the east, said he departed for Sana'a with 50 members of his tribe to demonstrate against the regime. "The President has told the world that Marib is full of terrorists so he can get more military aid from America," he half-joked. "We are here to show the world that he is the terrorist."

President Saleh has managed to spend the past three decades in power by appeasing belligerent tribal leaders with oil money. With depleting oil reserves, the President is now incapable of placating all the tribal sheiks, and the cracks are starting to show. "The government does nothing in my province," a northern sheik who asked to remain anonymous told TIME. "We have our own army. We even organize our own legal system. We ask, but the President gives us nothing."

Sheik Hamid al-Ahmar, whose family heads the largest and most powerful tribal confederation in Yemen, the Hashid, publicly announced his support for the antigovernment protests this week, adding fuel to the fire. Al-Ahmar had previously been mentioned by observers as a possible presidential successor if Saleh were to fall.

Other groups are starting to jump on the protest bandwagon. The Houthi rebels, who have fought an on-again, off-again war with Saleh for seven years, extended a hand of friendship to the student protesters. "We affirm our solidarity with our brothers from among the Yemeni people and our support of independents who angrily demand the end of the system ... and shout for the fall of the regime," they declared, according to a Houthi press statement released this week.

The Southern Movement, a loose coalition of political groups that have been calling for secession from the northern-based government since the mid-1990s, has also joined the students in the south. On Friday, one protester was killed in the southern port city of Aden when security forces fired on a demonstration, according to local media. Separatists are now communicating with the student protesters in the north and have changed their tone — they are focusing on calls for Saleh to step down rather than demands for independence.

Government loyalists staged a counterdemonstration Friday, but the pro-Saleh rally brought only a third of the numbers seen at the antigovernment demonstration. Over the past few weeks, loyalists have marched to the antigovernment protests to taunt the demonstrators, sometimes beating them with wooden batons. But on Friday, the thugs were kept at bay.