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February 02, 2011

Government Opponents, Supporters Rally in Yemen

Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators in Yemen held what they called a "day of rage" on Thursday to urge President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.  Mr. Saleh's supporters held a rival demonstration to back the government.

The opposing rallies in the capital, Sana'a, are the largest in a series of protests in the country inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Yemen's opposition is complaining of growing poverty, unemployment and corruption, and has rejected a proposition by President Saleh to leave office in 2013.

Despite growing animosity, most analysts do not believe the situation in Yemen will result in a violent rebellion.

Senior Middle East Analyst at IHS Jane’s, Dave Hartwell, says the Yemeni opposition would prefer change to occur peacefully.  "I think they are trying to hold Saleh to his word and begin a dialogue rather than begin the process of trying to overthrow the regime. I think that's where we're at, at the moment; of course it could change in the future," he said.

Yemen is a key ally in the United States’ fight on terror and Hartwell says a possible coup d'état could benefit groups like al-Qaida.

"A chaotic transition of power in Yemen could open up a huge number of other problems: the southern secessionists, the AQAP (al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula) threat, all rising to the fore and creating a potentially very, very dangerous situation," Hartwell said.

President Saleh has been in power for more than 30 years and even his supporters recognize a need for political and economic reform in the country.

He told parliament on Wednesday he would leave office in two years and also affirmed his son would not succeed him.

However, he has reneged on promises to step aside in the past.

Opposition supporters have vowed to hold further demonstrations in the coming days.

Program Manager for Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, Kate Nevens, believes the rallies will eventually result in some sort of reform. "I think these protests do represent a moment of change for Yemen, or an open window for Yemen. It is putting voices on a platform that are calling for greater political inclusion and it is also calling attention to some of the move towards constitution reform in the country," Nevens said.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula with about 40 percent of its population living on less than two U.S. dollars a day.