Tens of thousands of Yemenis rallied in cities across the country Friday calling for sweeping political changes as President Ali Abdullah Saleh approaches what appears to be the end of his 33-year rule.
But in shift indicating more support for the plan to usher him from power, many called on the vice president to "save the country."
Saleh's deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is set to be rubber-stamped as the impoverished Arabian peninsula nation's new leader in presidential elections scheduled for Feb. 21. Under a U.S.-backed plan brokered by Yemen's powerful neighbors, Hadi is to be the only candidate.
Over the last year, Yemenis inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have staged demonstrations tens of thousands strong calling for Saleh's ouster. The president's security forces have often met them with force, killing more than 250 protesters. Many others have died in armed clashes with loyalist troops.
The upheaval has allowed Yemen's active al-Qaida branch to seize territory in the country's loosely governed provinces, and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have worked hard to push the deal forward in hopes of fending off further chaos and ensuring the Yemeni government's cooperation on counter-terror operations.
Saleh, long considered an essential but unreliable U.S. anti-terrorism ally, is currently in the U.S. receiving treatment for injuries suffered during a blast in his palace compound last year. The U.S. says his visit is solely medical, though officials have said they hope his absence from Yemen will facilitate the transition.
The vocal support for Hadi at Friday's demonstrations reflects a shift in the protest movement, which long opposed the Gulf deal, saying it failed to offer the wider political changes protesters demanded. But after a year of protests and with few other avenues open for change, many now see the elections as the best way to end Saleh's 33-year rule.
Sanaa protest leader Abdel-Hadi al-Azazi said the protesters were backing Hadi "as a way to topple Saleh as the head of the regime." He said the protesters still opposed other aspects of the Gulf deal, specifically a clause granting Saleh and those who served in his government immunity from prosecution. The protesters want to see Saleh and others tried for their alleged roles in killing protesters.
They also fear that the deal with leave his allies and members of his family in positions of power.
While some protesters plan to boycott the elections, many of those marching Friday chanted, "Hadi, Hadi, save the country." A huge new billboard in a central square in Sanaa promoting the elections called them "the start of a new age in the life of Yemen" and showed a smiling photo of Hadi.