Saleh clings on to power in Yemen

23 February 2011

Despite increasing street protests across the country demanding his departure, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh looks unlikely to quit any time soon

If development indicators alone were used to predict the likelihood of civil disorder or revolution in the states of the Middle East and North Africa, one country would surely have topped the poll: Yemen.

According to the Washington-headquartered World Bank, more than 40 per cent of Yemenis live on $2 a day or less, while just 3 per cent have a bank account. Yemen also ranks 146 out of the 178 countries assessed by Berlin-headquartered Transparency International for corruption, with 178 being the most corrupt.

Yemen: Ripe for unrest

With an average age of 17.9 years, Yemen also has the youngest population in the region, as well as the worst record for unemployment. Jobless figures are as high as 40 per cent in some parts of the country and regular kidnappings of foreign visitors has damaged the tourism industry, a major employer in the country. In all the major social and economic indicators, Yemen comes out worst in the region.

The young educated urban population is much smaller in Yemen than in Egypt, with a low literacy rate

Kate Nevens, Chatham House

In recent years, analysts have repeatedly singled out Yemen as ripe for turmoil. As the current political unrest spreads in the Arab world, some analysts have gone as far as to tip Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to be the next regional leader to fall, following in the trail of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali in January and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in February.

Both those leaders were toppled by mass protests over alleged corruption and economic mismanagement, alongside years of oppression from state security services, complaints which can also be heard on a daily basis in Yemen. In an echo of Egypt’s popular uprising, Sanaa’s own Tahrir Square, which means Liberation Square, has been filling up with protesters calling for the president to step down.

Yet Saleh, who has led North Yemen since 1978 and the unified north and south since 1990, is in no mood to hand over the reins before his current term expires in 2013. His sole concession to protesters has been to promise he will serve out his current term and no more, and that he will not pass power to a family member; a repetition of statements made by both Ben Ali and Mubarak shortly before being forced to leave office.

Change is coming to Yemen. There is serious push for democracy, and it is coming from the people

Senior Yemeni tribal leader

There is much cynicism in the country over whether Saleh will keep his word. He promised to quit at the end of his last presidential term in 2006, before changing his mind “in the interest of the country”. Meanwhile, his ruling party, the General People’s Congress, is still trying to push through legislation to abolish executive term limits.

Perhaps, says a regional analyst, Saleh believes he has seen it all already. The country suffered a brutal civil war in 1994 as southern leaders, disenfranchised by the union of north and south Yemen four years earlier, agitated for secession. More recently, the Islamist extremist group Al-Qaeda has grown its presence in the country, attacking government officials and foreign diplomats. Houthi rebels in the north have also pressed for autonomy from Sanaa. The southern movement also continues to simmer.

Middle East support

Saleh has survived all of this and more, and has come out on top. In fact, thanks to Riyadh’s concerns over Houthi incursions into its territory and the group’s Shia heritage, he currently enjoys the backing of major regional powers. Saleh is also an American ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda. Such support stands in stark contrast to more than a decade of isolation after his decision to back Iraq during the invasion of Kuwait.

The government has long been aware of the ticking economic and demographic time-bomb it is sitting on. “Everyone under the age of 25 is a revolutionary and he is more so if he doesn’t have a job,” said Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Yemeni Foreign Minister, during a meeting to discuss the rise of extremist groups in the country at UK think-tank Chatham House in February. Yet it appears to have done little to change things and this inaction is behind much of the current unrest.

Ministers have publicly recognised the need for economic diversification. But diplomats and aid workers say a lack of skilled technocrats and widespread corruption make it difficult to plan projects and award contracts in Yemen. As a result the government is unable to attract foreign investors to the country to drive the diversification.

Despite this, analysts doubt Saleh will quit any time soon, pointing to differences between Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

“The young educated urban population is much smaller in Yemen than in Egypt, with an incredibly low literacy rate [60 per cent],” says Kate Nevens, manager of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme.

“It is difficult to tell if or when a critical level of ‘mobilised’ discontent will be reached. In Egypt, the movement was essentially an urban one, whereas the discontent in Yemen is widespread and in provinces, which have rejected the power of central government for some time.”

Critical mass

Sources on the ground say protesters in Yemen are largely from the country’s small population of university students or are sponsored by a loose opposition movement to take to the streets, rather than being genuinely inspired to take a stand against the president.

The ability of opposition leaders to spread their message and galvanise further support is hampered by the lack of communications infrastructure in the country.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the internet was a key factor in the success of the protest movements. Internet penetration is about 20-30 per cent in those countries; in Yemen, it is less than 2 per cent.

For popular uprisings to succeed, it is essential for opposition movements to reach the unquantifiable critical mass needed to provoke major change. That said, analysts equally doubted the power of the people in Tunisia and Egypt before their leaders were forced to resign and this is likely to bolster confidence among opposition groups in Yemen.

“There is a certain fear factor, a boundary that has been broken,” says Corrina Mullin, a lecturer at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and a specialist on the Middle East. “For people who live around the region in authoritarian states, seeing the people of Tunisia and Egypt standing up to and overcoming these brutal security apparatuses, it is an inspiration. People are thinking: ‘If they can do it, then perhaps we can too.’”

The Yemeni president has another advantage over Ben Ali and Mubarak, says a senior Yemeni tribal leader and ruling party member, in that he is likely to have learned from recent events abroad. Saleh has gained a reputation for being able to manipulate circumstances to his benefit and use a complex network of patronage to dampen dissent. A former diplomat describes the president as “a wily operator”.

This means passing swift economic, legal and constitutional reform, says the tribal leader. But any government initiatives will have to be genuine or Saleh may well face the same fate as his Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts.

In Bahrain, anti-government protesters have not been assuaged by a gift of $2,650 to every household, continuing instead with their demands for greater democracy and economic reform. In Yemen, state pay and pensions were increased in January and income tax was cut by 50 per cent in a bid to quell the mounting unrest. But this provoked a similar response from demonstrators.

“You can’t give incentives here and there,” the tribal leader says. “You have to have a proper shake-up and show the people that you are serious. “Egypt is a major factor in all of this. Egypt will never have a dictator again. The bar has been raised. Elections won’t just be government events held every four years. If and when parliamentary elections are held, they will have to be fair and free. The people are looking for a new Yemen.”

The next general elections in Yemen are scheduled for April 2011 and the next presidential election is due to be held in 2013.

The protests in Libya and Bahrain have been marked out by their bloodiness compared with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, during which the authorities showed some restraint. In Libya and Bahrain, military forces – predominantly made up of foreigners – have killed scores of protesters as they tried to break up the demonstrations.

Yemen military response

As in Egypt and Tunisia, the Yemeni military is made up of conscripts and they will be reluctant to turn on their own citizens. How the armed forces respond to the protests as time passes will ultimately determine the course of events, as they did in Tunis and Cairo.

“The military is from within the people and of the people,” says the tribal leader. “In the end, they will probably do the same thing.”

If protesters do succeed and Saleh is unseated, the weak opposition will have difficulties coordinating to form a government.

Running Yemen (a task Saleh has likened to “dancing on the heads of snakes”) would also be a challenge – and not just because of the appalling state of the economy.

“In both Tunisia and Egypt, there is a relatively recognisable state structure for new regimes or leaders to inherit,” Neven says. “In Yemen, what would be inherited is a complex system of patronage networks and balancing acts, which are highly dependent on personal relationships forged by President Saleh.”

The danger is that without Saleh, the country could descend further into economic chaos and lawlessness.

Nevertheless, before heading to a meeting with fellow leaders to discuss the protests, the tribal leader says that there is optimism in the air in Sanaa: “Change is coming to Yemen. There is serious push for democracy, and it is coming from the people. We have to listen to them or it will be to our cost.”

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