Thousands Keep Up Protest in Sanaa, Yemen

Thousands of protesters gathered in Yemen’s capital Sanaa on Sunday to call for president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Saleh suffered another blow when two powerful chiefs from his own tribe joined the opposition.

Ali Abdullah Saleh is the first and current President of the Republic of Yemen. Saleh previously served as President of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) from 1978 until 1990. During the term he assumed the office of chairman of the Presidential Council of the Republic of Yemen (North & South Yemen). He is the longest-serving president of Yemen, ruling since 1978. On February 2, 2011, Saleh announced that he would step down in 2013.

Saleh is a Zaydi Shia Muslim, which is commonly referred to as the “Fiver” school of Shia Islam. Saleh’s Zaydi “identity is one of culture and tradition rather than political allegiance,” as he is a “non-Hashimi” Zaydi, or not a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and Saleh would not have been eligible to rule under the Zaydi Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen that ruled the country until 1962. Saleh’s Shia heritage enables him to retain ties with Iran as demonstrated by Khatami’s official state visit to Yemen in 2003 and Ahmedinejad’s meeting with him in December 2010.

Saleh initially took power as a strongman of North Yemen in 1977, after serving as a lieutenant colonel in the army. Yemen’s previous president, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, had been assassinated. A long-time ally of Saddam Hussein, in 1990 Ali Abdullah Saleh supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

In late 2010 and early 2011, protests in Sanaa challenged Saleh’s long-time authoritarian rule over the country. The protests were a culmination of popular anger against Saleh’s refusal to end his three-decade long rule, lack of democratic reform, widespread corruption and human rights abuses carried out by Saleh, his family members and close allies. Human right violations included physical assault and arrest of prominent female human rights activists critical of his government.

Eleven members of Saleh’s party resigned after unarmed protesters were shot on February 23, 2011.