On and off for the past few weeks, thousands of youths draped in pink scarves and ribbons have been out protesting in Yemen’s capital, Sana, making it look as if that country is next in line after Tunisia and perhaps Egypt for regime change. But conditions in Yemen for ousting another elderly strongman and his big, greedy family after decades of misrule are not proving as favorable as one might expect.
Indeed, Ali Abdullah Saleh — a former army officer who has been president since 1978, when his predecessor was assassinated by means of an exploding suitcase — is proving less of a klutz than his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Saleh continues to excel at the business of ruling Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, a task which he has often unflatteringly likened to “dancing on the heads of snakes.” Yet, since Tunisians sent their longtime president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, packing, Mr. Saleh has been obliged to change his dance steps and quicken his pace; he has dropped income taxes, given out food subsidies and promised to raise the salaries of soldiers and civil servants and to provide jobs to college graduates.
On Wednesday, Mr. Saleh made two other vitally important political concessions: he would not tamper with the Constitution in order to extend his rule beyond 2013, nor would he permit his son Ahmed to succeed him. In return, he asked the alliance of opposition parties and civil society movements to call off a rally planned for the next day.
They did not, but the approximately 40,000-strong gathering at Sana University was an orderly affair. There were no angrily shouted demands that Mr. Saleh resign, no attempts to confront hastily mustered pro-Saleh supporters, no real efforts by the antigovernment forces to exploit the climate of anger and frustration generated by events in Tunisia and Egypt. Security guards at the university checked for weapons, turning away young men who had shown up armed with planks of wood. And it was all over by lunchtime, when rally organizers politely requested that participants roll up their banners and go home.
Given that President Saleh in 2005 pledged not to run again, and then changed his mind, trusting him to keep these latest promises is going to require generosity and immense restraint. A former government minister recently told me: “When he speaks to you he gives you his full attention and you are the only person in his world. He is very, very intelligent and he has a unique memory and he is not a bloodthirsty person — but he is one of the best liars on this earth.”
In the south of the country, where a separatist movement has been simmering for four years, there is likely to be pressure to ignore Mr. Saleh’s concessions and prolong the confrontation. The merger in 1990 of the Yemen Arab Republic in the north — home to Mr. Saleh and the tribes who have supported him in power — and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen has proved a disaster for the south. Southerners have suffered a land grab at the hands of their generally richer and more rapacious northern brothers. What’s more, after 128 years as separate entities (the south under British colonial rule and then homegrown Marxism, the north as a backward theocracy and then a military republic), the two regions’ manners, customs, education and values are not the same.
Another anti-Saleh constituency is the Zaidi Shiites, in the northwest, whose sporadically flaring insurgency has been a thorn in the regime’s side for the past six years. The lively Yemen affiliate of Al Qaeda is Mr. Saleh’s sworn enemy too, and though the group’s plots against him have so far failed, it would be guaranteed to take advantage of any power vacuum ensuing from his removal. Finally, there are the young, the students and the unemployed. Moved and excited by events in Tunisia and Egypt, they may not be as easy to control in the weeks to come as they have proved so far.
Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a prominent political commentator in Sana, told me that he believes Mr. Saleh will have to keep his promises this time: “The rules of the game have changed — he cannot not honor his word this time. Tunisia and Egypt have raised the bar.” He thinks Mr. Saleh has six months to prove himself trustworthy. At the end of that time, revenues from his two main sources — Saudi aid and minor oil exports — will not be enough to foot the civil service wage bill, or the diesel and food subsidies.
Then he will not be worrying about polite opposition politicians but more likely about bread-rioters, hungry and unmanageable, exploding into violence.
By Victoria Clark, the author of Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes.