Winds of Arab revolt reach Yemen

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Yemeni capital yesterday to demand the end of the three-decade rule of its President in the latest sign of rebellion sweeping the Arab world.

With satin pink sashes around their shoulders and carrying pink placards to mirror the so-called "jasmine revolution" of Tunisia, demonstrators called for an "end to the regime" of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"Game over," read one banner, carried by a 20-year-old protester from the University of Sanaa, who shouted "We want change like Tunisia."

Despite the size of the crowds, believed to be the largest political demonstration since Mr Saleh came to power in the Arab Peninsula's poorest country in 1978, riot police and soldiers kept a low profile.

"No major clashes or arrests occurred, and police presence was minimal. The government strongly respects the democratic right for a peaceful assembly," a government spokesman said.

Even before the outbreak of popular anger, Mr Saleh faced more challenges than most: a secessionist movement in the south, an on-off rebellion in the north, and a resurgent branch of al-Qa'ida that has entrenched itself in remote parts of Yemen.

But analysts suggest that it is precisely the disparate and chaotic nature of the opposition that will prevent a Tunisian-style revolution from sweeping Mr Saleh from power.

The President, whom many accuse of overseeing a corrupt regime that has failed to tackle economic grievances, has reacted to the unrest by backtracking on plans to seek another term in 2013, and fending off accusations that he will try to hand power to his son.

He has also promised to slash taxes and cap food prices, while raising salaries of civil servants and the military – probably to ensure the army's loyalty. In a speech on Sunday, the President asked for "the pardon of Yemeni people, if I have made a mistake or failed in my duty," according to state news agency Saba.

Yemen remains desperately poor, and its oil reserves, which make up 70 per cent of the government's revenue, are dwindling, denting the government's ability to dispense patronage and quell dissent. Nearly half of all Yemenis live in poverty, and unemployment is at least 35 per cent. Flooding and conflict have made thousands homeless.

In Tunisia, an educated but disaffected middle class called for change. Social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, were crucial in galvanising people to join the uprising.

Yemen is still largely a tribal society, its middle class is much weaker and less politically savvy than its more prosperous regional peers, and the internet has a much more limited reach.

Washington has thrown money at Yemen – making up in part for lost oil revenues – and is keen for the government to remain stable to avoid leaving a vacuum that al-Qa'ida could fill.

The main challenge to Mr Saleh, analysts say, would come if the various opposition groups were to look beyond their own grievances to mount a broader challenge. Until then, it looks as if it could take more than mass protests to remove Mr Saleh from his 32-year rule.