SANAA, Yemen — In an apparent effort to quell the violent protests that have persisted for three days straight on the streets of Yemen’s capital, the country’s authoritarian ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, released a rights activist from prison today. He also made public denials that he is grooming his son to take over power.
In a televised speech, Saleh insisted that there would be no father-to-son succession, describing such talk as “insolence.” He also announced plans to raise the salaries of government employees and military personnel by almost $50 — a significant perk for the poorly paid soldiers and civil servants serving the Arab world's poorest nation.
The concessions came after Tunisian-style protests erupted in Yemen over the weekend when thousands took to the streets to demand the removal of its autocratic president, who has held power for more than 30 years, joining leaders from Algeria to Jordan in the crosshairs of a popular revolt.
Calls for regime changes in a number of stagnant Arab dictatorships have spread across the Middle East and North Africa since Tunisia’s Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in the face of demonstrations on Jan. 14.
Tensions reached a boiling point in Yemen on Sunday when plain-clothed police officers arrested Tawakul Karman, a female activist responsible for organizing the uprising, in the early hours of the morning while driving home with her husband.
Authorities released Karman earlier today with a commitment from her family that “she will no longer offend public order and law.”
Karman had been on a hunger strike for the past 24 hours, according to the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate.
“Arresting a woman, especially at night, is seen as shameful here and many people will have been insulted,” said Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor of political science at Sanaa University. “I’m sure they released her because they did not want her becoming a figurehead like Mohamed Bouazizi [whose self-immolation helped spark the Tunisian revolt].”
On Saturday, the chants of 2,500 students and opposition activists could be heard pouring over the walls of Sanaa University where noisy demonstrations, led by Karman, called for the president to step down.
Encircled by a crowd of heavily armed police, the students waved placards, several referencing the recent uprising in Tunisia — dubbed the Jasmine Revolution — that started in late December and ended 23 years of authoritarian rule.
“You call Yemen the next Somalia, we call Yemen the next Tunisia,” one of the banners read.
Outside the gates of the university, riot police armed with water cannons used batons and shields to disperse protesters. A cameraman working for the satellite station al-Arabiya had his camera confiscated and was briefly detained for filming the skirmishes. Police beat another cameraman working for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based station reported.
“They respond to peaceful protesters with heavily armed soldiers. This shows how worried they are. This is the last gasp of the regime,” said Sadeq Saeed, 20, a student at Sanaa University.
Since the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia earlier this month, students and opposition activists have been holding regular protests in Yemen’s capital. But this weekend’s demonstrations appear to be the first to directly confront the rule of Yemen's president, a line few dissenters have dared to cross in the past.
Khaled al-Ansi, the general executive of Hood, the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, was among those journalists arrested.
“They arrested [Karman] because she's trying to transfer the Tunisian message to the Yemeni youth,” he told GlobalPost before he was detained.
Yemen’s 23 million citizens are among the poorest people in the Arab world and endure a deeply corrupt and largely ineffectual government. The country is plagued by tribal conflicts and a growing Al Qaeda movement. There are few political freedoms and the country is rapidly running out of water and oil reserves.
Ahmed Saif Hashed, an independent Yemeni parliamentarian, told GlobalPost he was disappointed at the absence of opposition party members from Sunday’s protest.
“The movement cannot succeed until the opposition parties are ready to lead. Too many of them are conservative businessmen who still have a stake in the regime,” he said.