By LAURA KASINOF
SANA'A- Mar 1, 2011- As thousands of demonstrators for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh took to the streets on Tuesday, a cleric who is a former mentor of Osama bin Laden joined them to call for the replacement of the government with an Islamic state.
The cleric, Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, has been on the United States Treasury Department’s list of “specially designated global terrorists” since 2004, suspected of fund-raising for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. His call was a marked contrast to the message of the rebellions that brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and now threaten the rulers of Libya, Bahrain, Oman and, to this point, Yemen, where uprisings have been seen as secular and inspired by democratic goals.
In the past, he has publicly opposed terrorism, if not jihad, or holy war, and his word as a spiritual leader carries considerable political and moral weight in Yemen.
Mr. Zindani’s appearance coincided with an unusual display of anti-American sentiment by Mr. Saleh, who accused Washington and Israel of fomenting unrest to destabilize the Arab world — an accusation that seemed more remarkable because the United States has been Mr. Saleh’s most powerful Western backer during his three decades in power.
“From Tunis to the sultanate of Oman,” Mr. Saleh said, the wave of protest is “managed by Tel Aviv and under the supervision of Washington.”
The United States dismissed the accusation. “The protests in Yemen are not the product of external conspiracies,” Philip J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, wrote on Twitter. “President Saleh knows better. His people deserve a better response.”
Soon after Mr. Saleh’s remarks, antigovernment protesters took to the streets, backed for the first time by opposition parties who on Monday rejected a proposal from Mr. Saleh to form a unity government.
Mr. Zindani spoke on an open-air stage before several thousand anti-government protesters, guarded by his own private security force of 10 men carrying AK-47’s and shielded from the scorching sun by two umbrellas wielded by aides. He called for Mr. Saleh to step down and described the fervor for reform as an opportunity. “An Islamic state is coming,” he said, drawing cries of “God is great” from some in the crowd.
He said Mr. Saleh “came to power by force, and stayed in power by force, and the only way to get rid of him is through the force of the people.”
For many years, he maintained ties with Mr. Saleh even though he was a founder of the Islamic opposition Islah Party.
Some in the crowd said they supported his appearance because of his position against the president. “Yes, he is a big influence,” said Saleh Al Garani, 25, an unemployed antigovernment protester. “But what’s important is that he says ‘get out.’ We all agree because he says Saleh has to go.”
Others said Mr. Zindani’s appearance at the demonstration did not denote a broader Islamic influence on the Yemeni protests. The cleric has been a supporter of Mr. Saleh for five years, said Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani, a political analyst. “Now he has jumped ship because he’s seen that Saleh is slowly losing his power base and therefore he wanted to be with the winning side,” Mr. Iryani said. “That’s all there is to it.”
But to judge from the numbers on Tuesday, the pro-government camp seemed to have gathered some strength, mustering one of its biggest crowds in weeks of turmoil.
Samir Ali, a 35-year-old mobile phone company worker, said that Tuesday was his first day joining the pro-government side. “Yes, we have corruption. Yes, there is oppression. But the government is trying to fix these things,” he said.
He also referred to a meeting on Monday between Mr. Saleh and Yemeni religious scholars. “People like me, independents, we know that the opposition has a point, “ Mr. Ali said. “But when the religious scholars say something, then we follow.”
At times, both demonstrations had a party-like atmosphere, even though the opposition had billed it as a “day of rage.”
Men on the pro-government side danced in the streets, waving aloft the traditional, curved daggers worn by many Yemeni men. They also modified their opponents’ favored slogan — “the people want the regime to fall” — and instead, chanted: “The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
Among the Middle Eastern countries in upheaval, analysts say, the direction Yemen would take if the government fell is particularly difficult to predict.
Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University, said that Yemen is very different from Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak stepped down but the military command structure stayed very much in place. President Saleh’s son, nephews and close allies from the Sanhan tribe run the country’s military and intelligence agencies, and if Mr. Saleh goes, they are unlikely to be able to hold onto their positions.
“A lot of people are really worried about what happens the day after Saleh is gone,” Mr. Johnsen said in a telephone interview from Cairo. Yemen is a famously well-armed country, and if a power struggle were to break out, it is hard to predict how the factions would shape up. “No one knows where the different tribal groupings would land,” he said.
But, he noted, “Religion has a larger place in public discourse in Yemen than in most other countries in the region.”
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror network’s affiliate in Yemen, “is nowhere near strong enough to make a play for control of the state,” Mr. Johnsen said. But he said that if Mr. Saleh’s departure raised hopes for rapid change, the country’s rampant unemployment and poverty, burgeoning population, shrinking oil revenue and dwindling water supply would all remain.
“In a year, that could open the way for Al Qaeda to say, ‘You tried Saleh, you tried democracy, now you have to try the way of the Prophet and the rule of shariah law,’ ” Mr. Johnsen said.
Nonetheless, he said, “What’s important is for the Obama administration to move past seeing Yemen simply through the lens of counterterrorism.” The United States and its allies need to move more aggressively to assist Yemen with its social and economic problems, not just trying to pick off terrorists, he said.
Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington.
Source: the New York Times