SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s president rejected mounting demands for his resignation Monday as thousands of students held an overnight sit-in at Sanaa University, the first of its kind.
"If they want me to quit, I will only leave through the ballot box," President Ali Abdullah Saleh told foreign press at his presidential palace Monday morning, a day after opposition legislators vowed to join the 3,000-strong student protests. A week-and-a-half of violent protests have left 12 dead.
Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for more than three decades, also spoke out against the latest batch of unrest percolating across the Middle East.
“This disease is alien to Yemen and its culture. It's a virus that came from Tunisia to Egypt and in some regions it's behaving like a contagious disease: As soon as you sit with someone who is infected, you'll be infected," Saleh told reporters.
The atmosphere was jovial at Sanaa University Sunday evening as thousands of students sang and danced their way through the night, marking the 10th consecutive day of protests in the capital. Women and children distributed food and blankets and set up tents for the protesters who camped overnight. The protesters have vowed not to leave until Saleh steps down.
“Ya Ali, go out, go out! Your throne is rusting under you!” shouted protesters between intermittent bursts of music, poetry and Quranic readings. Cheers went up as small cohorts of tribesmen from across the country arrived.
“This is our Yemen, it’s not for Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family, it’s ours!” said Fatima Al-Sawadi, 19, one of a handful of veiled women handing out bread rolls to the students.
“This will be our new Tahrir Square,” said Yasir Al-Mahdi, 23, beckoning to the people-packed space, usually a busy intersection filled with traffic, outside the university gates. Sanaa’s real Tahrir square, which shares its name with the famous square in Cairo, has been occupied by supporters of the ruling GPC party for the past two weeks.
Things suddenly grew tense at the university at around 2 a.m. when hundreds of riot police arrived to block a horde of 50 pro-Saleh tribesmen armed with rocks and metal poles trying to disperse the protesters.
On Friday, pro-Saleh supporters opened fire with machine guns on unarmed protesters, many of whom were children, gathered in central Sanaa, injuring four students, one critically.
“These shootings are an extremely worrying sign,” said Abdullah Al-Faqih, professor of politics at Sanaa University. “There are three times as many guns as people in Yemen and violence is usually responded to with more violence. These are incredibly dangerous times for my country.”
Some allege that the pro-Saleh supporters are being paid by the government to disrupt the protests. Fares, a middle-aged man, carrying a splintered piece of wood and a Yemeni flag on Friday, admitted to having been paid YR4000 ($20) to "support his country for the next four days" but would not say by whom.
Fizzling unrest spiralled out of control Monday in the southern port city of Aden. A teenager was killed and four others wounded when soldiers opened fire at youths throwing stones at a military patrol in the city's Khormaksar district, witnesses said.
One resident who did not wish to be named said Aden resembled a "war zone" and that a number of foreigners working there were preparing to evacuate the city.
“The security forces have completely disappeared, crowds of young men are roaming the streets breaking into shops and setting fire to police stations and government buildings,” said the resident.
Over the past nine days of protests, 12 people have been killed and more than 150 wounded as police fire tear gas and gunshots. Saleh said on Monday that the security forces had been ordered to fire at demonstrators "only in cases of self-defense."
The U.S. Embassy in Yemen put out a press release on Friday calling on the government of Yemen to "fulfill its responsibility to protect the life and property of all Yemenis and to safeguard their basic human and civil rights."
“The attacks are contrary to the commitments that President Saleh has made to protect the right of Yemeni citizens to gather peacefully to express their views,” the statement read.