- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2011

Protests for democratic reforms spread Thursday from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen, where thousands of people gathered in the capital, Sanaa, to demand that the impoverished country’s longtime president step down.

Yemen, which has become a base for al Qaeda terrorists, is a key U.S. ally in counterterrorism intelligence and operations, having allowed U.S. drone attacks on terrorist suspects. It also received about $300 million in military and development aid from the U.S. last year.

The Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen has a population of about 28 million, nearly half of whom live below the poverty line; it also has high rates of unemployment and rampant corruption in its government.

In recent months, Yemenis have been angered by moves to amend the nation’s constitution to extend the term of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years. His current term expires in 2013.

Thursday, in the southern provinces of Dali and Shabwa, riot police used batons to disperse protesters, while thousands took to the streets in al-Hudaydah province, an al Qaeda stronghold along the Red Sea coast, according to the Associated Press.

“We gather today to demand the departure of President Saleh and his corrupt government,” opposition member of parliament Abdulmalik al-Qasuss told demonstrators in Sanaa, according to Agence France-Presse.

A popular uprising in Tunisia that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, another longtime autocratic leader, on Jan. 14 has provided the impetus for pro-democracy protests that erupted this week in Egypt and Yemen.

In the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, a 28-year-old unemployed man set himself on fire to protest the country’s economic troubles, according to an AP account.

Such incidents have been reported from across the region since Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, set himself of fire in December, sparking Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine Revolution.

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland in College Park, said it was only a matter of time before the lid blew off the pent-up frustration in the Arab world.

“The protests in Tunisia were empowering because Tunisians were able to break through the barrier of fear created by the regime,” Mr. Telhami said.

More protests are planned in Yemen and Egypt on Friday.

Mohammed Al-Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, said the protests had been peaceful and there were no major clashes or arrests.

The Yemeni government “strongly respects the democratic right for a peaceful assembly,” Mr. Al-Basha said in a statement.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, meanwhile, said the “status quo in the Middle East and North Africa is not sustainable.”

He said the Obama administration supports the right of the Yemeni people to express themselves and assemble freely.

Cooperation on counterterrorism is a key pillar in the U.S.-Yemeni relationship. Yemen has emerged as a strategically important U.S. ally because al Qaeda has made it a base of operations, where it has fashioned itself as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is also thought to be hiding in Yemen and is thought to have instructed Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, who is accused of trying to detonate a bomb in his underwear on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009.

Yemen also has been the site of anti-U.S. attacks: The USS Cole was bombed when it stopped to refuel in Aden on Oct. 12, 2000, and 17 sailors were killed.

Mr. Crowley acknowledged counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen, but added, “At the same time, part of the solution to combating violent extremism in Yemen is … political and economic reform.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a similar message on a trip to Yemen earlier this month.

The Obama administration has been supportive of the rights and freedoms of the anti-government protesters since the Tunisian uprising.

“There is a lot of nervousness in Washington right now, even as everyone supports in principle the advocacy of democracy, I think there is also a level of discomfort,” Mr. Telhami said.

Mr. Crowley said developments in Tunisia had created an opportunity.

“It’s an opportunity that presents itself in Egypt. It’s an opportunity that presents itself in Yemen. And … we believe that governments need to take advantage of this opportunity to expand their dialogue with their populations and respond to the aspirations of their people,” he said.

At a news conference with his Canadian counterpart on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called for “across-the-board” reforms in Arab nations rocked by civil unrest.

“President Obama and Secretary Clinton face the very difficult task of shaping unprecedented historical changes in the Arab world we cannot stop or control while protecting our key interests like the Egyptian peace with Israel and fighting al Qaeda,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Mr. Riedel said past U.S. administrations’ track records of managing similar transformations in the Muslim world — Jimmy Carter in the case of Iran and George W. Bush with Pakistan — have not been encouraging.

“We must help manage transition without frightening allies like Jordan’s King Abdullah,” Mr. Riedel said. “Egypt is the key.”

Meanwhile, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, returned to Egypt, where he offered to lead anti-government protests.

Mr. ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has emerged as a key opponent of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Crowley described the developments in Egypt as very significant and said the U.S. would like to see political reform and a “broader opportunity for people to participate in the political process.”

Mrs. Clinton this week called on Egyptian authorities to allow the protests to occur peacefully.

U.S. officials also have told Egyptian authorities not to prevent people from using social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

“The solution in Tunisia is not the solution in Egypt. It’s not the solution in Yemen. And yet, because — people are observing what’s happening, they’re reacting to what’s happening, it is an important moment for these countries to find ways to respond,” Mr. Crowley said.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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