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Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Any Way Out For Yemen?
By Tom Finn
Protest against President Saleh in Sana'a
do you guys in the West keep falling for the same old tricks?" Yusif
Al-Ra'adi, a lean-looking student who forwent his studies in engineering back
in May to join his country's uprising, told me as we sat in the shade of a
sheet of blue tarpaulin in Sana'a's Change Square. "He [Saleh] has no
intention whatsoever of stepping down, it's a dance, this is a political
agreement that really means nothing to us."
skepticism throws cold water on the hopes raised by Yemen's President Ali
Abdullah Saleh's decree this week granting his deputy the right to sign a deal
with the opposition for a transfer of power. Saleh is currently in Saudi Arabia
recovering from chest wounds he sustained in a booby-trap bombing of his palace
in early June. He surprised observers with an announcement that Yemen's Vice
President, Abed Mansour Hadi, could now sign a deal drawn up by the Gulf
Cooperation Council, which offers Saleh immunity in exchange for early
presidential elections. A peaceful way out of this year's bout of bloody
demonstrations and swirling financial and political turmoil might still be in
the sense of optimism rippling though the pages of western newspapers has been
much harder to detect here on the grubby streets of the capital, Sana'a.
"No deal, no maneuvering, the president should leave!" was the cry
that rang out through the city on Tuesday as tens of thousands of men, women,
and children spilled out onto the streets to decry the latest attempt by the
country's president to evade pressure to step down. Yemen's beleaguered but
tenacious demonstrators have endured months of bloody repression, tit for tat
political negotiations, and hollow concessions. Now -- unsurprisingly -- they
say that Saleh's agreement delegating "constitutional capabilities"
to his deputy is nothing but a ploy by the embattled leader to buy himself more
decree certainly has its shortfalls. While Hadi technically now has the ability
to sign Saleh's premiership away, Saleh retains the right to reject the deal if
he desires. Yemenis have learned over the years not to put much faith in
Saleh's promises. More importantly, there is no reference to the fate of the
institution currently propping up the regime in Saleh's absence: the armed
forces, large portions of which remain under the control of Saleh's son,
nephew, and cousins.
all those problems, the deal might still look attractive to some parts of the
opposition. With Yemen locked into a seemingly unbreakable stalemate between an
absentee president and a fractured opposition coalition in the Joint Meeting
Parties (JMP), some analysts are touting early presidential elections as a
potential escape route to Yemen's political turmoil. But while the JMP might
jump at the chance to face off against Saleh and his ruling party in the polls
it's unlikely that elections would do anything to placate the hundreds of
thousands of Yemenis who remain camped out in tented shantytowns across the
elections now will only replace one dictator with another. The youth expect a
genuine solution and not a democracy charade," says Salem Ben Mubarak, a
leading member of a coordinating council on Facebook called the Youth Revolution
for Change. "We want fundamental constitutional changes and fundamental
government behavioral change and we will not rest until our demands are
met." Salem's views echo that of thousands of other youthful pro-democracy
protesters who feel that the formal opposition in its ongoing negotiations with
the incumbent regime is selling them down the river. As the days drag by, Salem
and his counterparts fear that their peaceful pro-democracy movement will soon
be eclipsed by Yemen's tribal warlords and military chiefs who've been
jockeying for position in Saleh's absence.
now Saleh's strategy appears to be working -- as he drags the hoped for
transition out, the patchy alliance of anti-Saleh actors is starting to
splinter. For the first time in months the painful issue of north-south
division (North and South Yemen were unified under Saleh in 1990, but
southerners often accuse the north of discrimination) has resurfaced and is
preventing opposition groups from forming a solid and united front.
protest leaders, who point to the large and ongoing demonstrations, hope for
something more. "There should be comprehensive reforms in the country's
governmental institutions," argues Alaa Aj Jarban, a young protest leader
from the southern port city of Aden. He, like other protestors, calls for a
referendum on the political system, and elections for president and the
government. And unlike some Arab protest movements, Jarban is eager for
international assistance, especially financial and technical assistance to "help
Yemenis build a new democratic and civil country."
Saleh continues to ponder his next move in Riyadh, "the situation,"
as locals call it here, is growing increasingly desperate. Frustration is
giving way to outright anger as the cost of food and fuel continues to
skyrocket in a country where some 40 percent of the population of 23 million
people live on less than $2 a day and one third face chronic hunger. For those
unable to afford petrol-powered generators, electricity is now a fleeting
luxury, flicking on for an hour each day and off again for ten. Indeed, the
United Nations has recently accused the government of trying to pressure and
punish the civilian population by cutting off access to electricity, fuel, and
things play out in the next few weeks will be determined by whether the United
States and Yemen's neighbors in the gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, become
convinced that the impending collapse of Yemen merits a more interventionist
role. So far their only real achievement has been to keep Saleh in Saudi Arabia
who despite giving periodic reminders that he'll be "returning to Sana'a
soon," seems unlikely to be flying back anytime in the near future.
Otherwise, with political negotiations continually flopping, Yemen's economy
faltering, and tensions running high among protesters on the ground, the fate
of this impoverished country will end up being thrashed out by Yemen's
fractious armed forces and powerful tribal chiefs.Yemen's tenacious democratic protest movement
deserves something more.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 14/09/2011
-Tom Finn is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen