Yemen: Won't Be Fooled Again


March 4, 2011: Continued demonstrations, and loss of support by key tribal and religious leaders, has forced president Saleh to offer to step down by the end of the year. This may, or many not, work. Two weeks ago, Saleh pledged to not run for reelection in two years (when his current term is up). That was considered mostly theater. It was believed that the anti-Saleh crowds in the capital calling for change would thin out and disappear.

The anti-government demonstrations in Yemen, inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, did not grow huge, in part because the government coalition was based on tribe, not just family, or personal interests. So a lot of the payoffs were reaching the street, at least if you belonged to a pro-government tribe. Still,  Saleh continued to be under pressure, and making whatever deals he could to buy time. That's because time is on his side. The demonstrators do not have the backing of enough tribes to remove Saleh by force. If Saleh leaves, a lot of his followers lose lucrative jobs and powerful government powers, and this gives Saleh a lot of armed support, despite the size of the demonstrations.

Saleh's big problem is that he has been around for a long time, and people remember some of the tricks he has used in the past. For example, the last time Saleh faced large demonstrations against his misrule, he promised not to run again (in 2005), but then changed his mind when the popular anger abated and the ranks of the demonstrators thinned. The opposition says they won't be fooled again. Honest elections are being called for, but that will be difficult because each tribe has supervised vote manipulation for decades. This would be done for whoever the tribal leadership had decided to back (and accept money from). For decades, that had been Saleh. For a new round of "free elections", the tribal leaders are being asked to give up taking a fee for manipulating the local vote. Some say they will, others just mumble.

Ali Abdullah Saleh has been president of a unified Yemen since 1990, and before that, North Yemen since 1978.He has lots of friends and allies, and lots of enemies. But the majority of Yemenis would like to see someone else as president, if only to see if such a change in leadership would do anything to solve the growing list of problems the country is suffering from. A new president probably won't have much success against the corruption and growing water shortage, but Saleh is seen to have had his opportunity to fix things, and failed.

Saleh has played by the Yemeni rules of politics, which call for a low body count and lots of haggling. Despite dozens of separate large demonstrations, some of them violent, over a month of this unrest has caused only a few hundred deaths and (mostly) injuries. Many of those hurt were police, acting under orders to minimize casualties.

Weeks of demonstrations against the government has led to more crime throughout the country. Partly this is because so many police and soldiers were called back to the capital to handle demonstrators (or at least try to), but also because tribes and other groups with grievances have turned to violence to get attention, or, by kidnapping, forcing the government to negotiate.  Islamic terrorist and separatist groups are largely waiting to see what, if any, new leadership will emerge.

March 2, 2011: The U.S. accused Iran of being in contact with Yemen opposition groups. That's not really news, as there has been ample evidence of this for years, especially when it came to aid for the rebellious Shia tribes in the north. But this time, the U.S. believes that Iran has reached out to Sunni tribes and clerics. At this point, all Iran could supply would be cash, which tribal leaders are always ready to take.

President Saleh apologized for saying, yesterday, that the U.S. and Israel were behind the demonstrations in Yemen and other Arab countries. This is a popular idea with many Arabs, but since the United States is one of the few reliable allies he has left, Saleh quickly realized what he had done, and tried to make amends.

Over 30,000 people hit the streets in cities in towns all over the country, calling for Saleh to resign.

February 28, 2011: President Saleh's offer of a "unity government" was rejected by opposition groups. Such a deal would have replaced some current allies of Saleh (the weaker ones), with opposition leaders. This is how Saleh has done business for decades, but a new generation of leaders, and many of their elders, want to see someone else in charge. Over the last few days, at least seven key tribal leaders have announced they are no longer supporting Saleh. This is more serious that street demonstrations, and indicates that there is a growing demand for change. Not just in the composition of the government, but at the very top.

February 25, 2011:  Over 100,000 came out to demonstrate and call for the resignation of president Saleh.






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