With all eyes watching to see which Arab regime will fall next, it seems that Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is making the most effort to avoid the final mistakes of fallen leaders. But the signs are indicating his attempts, in light of the growing violence and street protests, will not be enough, said opposition members and analysts.
During the past month, Mr Saleh has agreed to various concessions in response to demands he end his 32-year rule. He has ordered a 15 per cent salary increase for government employees, cancelled student tution fees at public universities, announced that he will step down in 2013 and, most importantly, vowed that his son will not succeed him as president.
Mr Saleh, who has vowed not to quit under popular pressure, announced this week that he is prepared for a televised debate with the opposition - a level of confidence not seen by other Arab leaders facing serious revolt.
Also unlike other Arab leaders, Mr Saleh has gone to the streets and met with the leaders of the youth protests to hear their demands and to promise change, calling them “the cornerstone” of Yemen’s future.
But Ali Saif Hasan, chairman of Yemen’s Political Development Center, in Sanna, said Mr Saleh gave the opposition words, not actions. The “opposition will only enter dialogue if they feel it will be successful,” said Mr Hasan.
Until that happens, it appears the marches and demonstrations sweeping the country will continue to grow. Yemen’s biggest opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), has called on its followers to protest alongside the thousands of youth who have styled their anti-government movement after the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Mohammed Al-Mutawakil, president of JMP, says that talks with the government, which ended four months ago, will not soon resume.
“We call on people to join the youth protest against the oppression of the regime. We will not sit on the same table with a party that kills innocent civilians who only want to express their anger peacefully,” said Mr Mutawakil.
In addition, 10 MPs have withdrawn from the ruling party coalition in protest against the attacks against demonstrators. Yesterday, witnesses reported that armed supporters of Mr Saleh opened fire on a student sit-in late in Sanaa, shooting dead two students and wounding 11 others, despite the president’s promise earlier this week that troops would only fire in self-defence. Yesterday’s attack led to the first fatalities in the capital since demonstrations broke out more than two weeks ago, bringing the death toll countrywide to what media estimate is more than a dozen.
Yemen is the poorest Arab country, with nearly half the population living below the poverty line of US$2 (Dh7.34) a day. The country is also dealing with an active al Qa’eda branch, a southern separatist movement and disaffected tribesmen around the country. Its economic future is dim - its small oil reserves slowly dwindling.
About 65 per cent of the country, or 11 million people, are unemployed in Yemen, mostly youth. It is this marginalized group that opposition parties are supporting in the push for change.
“Youth have more demands, will not be patient, and are larger in number; therefore, giving the ruling party a bigger problem to worry about,” said JMP official Hasan Zaid.
In Sanaa, about 1,000 students spent the night yesterday at a square near Sanaa university, dubbed Al-Huriya (Liberty) Square, where they erected a huge tent in the style of the Egypt and Tunisia uprisings. An estimated 4,000 gathered in the square earlier in the day, where the two groups have clashed violently in recent days. Thousands of protesters have also taken to the streets in several neighbourhoods of the southern city of Aden, calling on Mr Saleh to step down.
But it is Mr Saleh’s continuous meetings over the past few weeks with military leaders that has worried the opposition. The JMP believe that no progress in reforms can be made if Mr Saleh’s ruling family has firm control of the army. Political analyst Ali Jaradi, from Yemen, said the country’s army exists to defend the ruling family, but is publicly funding.
Ali Abdul Jabbar, a political analyst in Yemen since 2005, said the opposition would also want change handled carefully as Yemen is a tribal society where almost every adult male has a firearm. Any decision by the country’s major tribes, who have been courted for support by both Mr Saleh and the opposition, to take sides in the crisis could create more serious violence.
The international community is also considering its options. The United States and the European Union started serious dialogue with the opposition JMP more than three months ago. Since then, every major foreign diplomat who met Mr Saleh has also met with the opposition.
But political expert Ahmad Bahri, from Yemen, said that Mr Saleh’s biggest problem is financial support the Ahmar brothers, Hamid and Hussein, sons of the late and powerful tribal leader Sheikh Abullah Ahmar, are providing to the anti-government protest organzation.
Hussein Ahmar said this week that he will bring thousands of tribesmen to Sanaa to defend anti-government protesters if supporters of Mr. Saleh’s rule continue their attacks. Hamid Ahmar, a business tycoon and leading opposition figure, said that he will spend as much as it takes to oust Mr Saleh from rule.
“His regime must fall, and we will do everything for the sake of the people to ensure that he is ousted,” said the older brother, Hameed.