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The unrest in Tunisia and Egypt has spread to Yemen, threatening the stability of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an enemy of Iran and Al-Qaeda. The protestors are demanding his immediate resignation but even if his rule lasts, the instability could allow Iran and Al-Qaeda to carve out enclaves in the Gulf country.
Tens of thousands of Yemenis have consistently protested in the streets since the removal of Tunisian President Ben Ali. At least one self-immolation has happened, inspired by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi that set off the Jasmine Revolution. Last Thursday’s “Day of Rage” consisted of at least 20,000 demonstrators in the capital of Sanaa.
Saleh has offered major concessions to alleviate the pressure on him. He has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2013 and power will not be transferred to his son. He has postponed parliamentary elections set for April so that the opposition has more time to organize and he now supports a national unity government that will include his opponents. Regional governors will now be directly elected and all adults will be eligible for voter registration.
He has slashed income taxes by 60 percent, now supports term limits, has released detained activists and journalists and has increased the salaries of government personnel, including the security forces. Saleh also announced reforms to benefit students such as a decrease in tuition, offering free tuition for the rest of the year and the creation of a fund to help them find jobs after graduating from university. This is a huge number of far-reaching reforms that reflects how seriously Saleh and his government view the unrest.
Brian O’Neill, a former editor of the Yemen Observer with a blog that closely follows developments in the country, told FrontPage that it is “very unlikely” that President Saleh will be forced into resigning.
“Right now there isn’t anyone with a strong enough power base to replace Saleh,” he said.
The main opposition bloc is called the Joint Meetings Party, which includes an Islamist party called Islah as its most powerful member. Islah was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood and has support from tribal chiefs and Salafists in the country. The party supports creating a religious police to “promote virtue and combat vice” and opposes “foreign occupation” and a “return to colonialism,” terms used to criticize Saleh’s close working relationship with the U.S. The Treasury Department has designated one of its top leaders, Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zindani, as a terrorist with ties to Al-Qaeda. He also has ties to Hamas and Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi.
President Saleh has valid reasons to remain confident that he can stay in power. His sweeping reforms could show the Yemeni people that he is responsive and the opposition, including Islah and al-Zindani, has partnered with his regime in the past. He has appointed family members to lead his national security institutions and the Internet, especially social networking websites, is not as accessible to the population as it is in other parts of the region. Large pro-Saleh rallies were able to be put together to counter the opposition and the regime’s opponents are divided. The government also has cultivated tribal ties, particularly those that are enemies of the Houthis and tribesmen were used to protect Tahrir Square.
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