Archive | April, 2011

How President Saleh hangs on in Yemen

19 Apr
Yemenis wonder whether the opposition would be any better
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
 
By Malak Shaher, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When protests in Tunisia and Egypt broke out in January, the people of Yemen watched on TV but did not take to the streets against their own long-ruling president, Ali Abdulla Saleh. They did not protest even when the Yemeni parliament that month removed term limits on the presidency, opening the possibility of Mr. Saleh becoming president for life.

It was Yemen’s opposition parties, concerned that they would remain locked out of power, that saw in the Tunisian and Egyptian demonstrations an opportunity to bring down Mr. Saleh. They began to organize rallies against the regime that continue to this day.

But while Yemen’s revolution did not begin at the grassroots, there was plenty of grassroots anger for the opposition to exploit.

Mr. Saleh has held power for 32 years, yet Yemen remains one of the poorest countries in the world. One-third of its 24 million people sometimes go without food, according to the World Food Program, and nearly half are illiterate.

Yemen relies on oil for about 25 percent of its gross domestic product, but much of the oil money has been siphoned off to Mr. Saleh’s family members, cronies and tribes instead of going to productive investment. Unemployment runs at about 34 percent, one of the highest rates in the world.

Another roadblock to prosperity is the widespread chewing of qat, a leaf containing an amphetamine-like stimulant that produces a burst of energy and euphoria. Many Yemeni men spend their afternoons on qat breaks, and the cultivation of the plant sucks up 40 percent of the country’s water supply.

Mr. Saleh also has been unable to prevent unrest between north and south Yemen, which were separate countries until 1990 and which fought a civil war in 1994. In the north, a group of insurgents claimed to establish a kingdom in 2004. In 2007, people in the south called for secession.

When the protests in Tunisia and Egypt broke out, the Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of six opposition parties, pounced. It demanded drastic reforms and called on Mr. Saleh to step down. Public rallies began in the capital of Sanaa in late January and the JMP announced a “Day of Wrath” for Feb. 3.

Mr. Saleh tried to head off the Day of Wrath by proclaiming that he would not run for president again nor arrange for his son to succeed him. “No extension, no inheritance,” he said. Mr. Saleh also lowered income taxes and offered hundreds of jobs in the public sector. But his concessions came too late.

Some 10,000 people showed up on the Day of Wrath and within a couple of weeks, the revolution was institutionalized.

People started sleeping in tents in front of Sanaa University’s front gate and renamed the area Sahat Al-Tagheer — Change Square. Peaceful protesters slept, ate, prayed, watched TV and surfed the Internet in their new tent city. They chewed qat in the afternoons.

Mr. Saleh, for the most part, left them alone, although violence occasionally broke out at some protests across the country and there were come casualties.

Then, after Friday prayers on March 18, shots rang out and the smoke of burning car tires rose in the sky. Snipers were picking off protesters and panic spread. The mayhem was shown live on TV and video was streamed onto the Web.

The shooting lasted 40 minutes, leaving Change Square covered with blood. The death count rose beyond 40.

Since that day, demonstrations have intensified across the country, as has the pressure on Mr. Saleh to resign. More than 100 Yemenis have been killed.

One of Mr. Saleh’s few accomplishments has been his empowerment of women. Yemeni women have immeasurably more freedom under law than do their sisters in neighboring Saudi Arabia. They can drive cars, hold jobs and walk about freely with uncovered faces.

Yet Mr. Saleh, in his desperation to maintain power, turned his back on women last week when he claimed they were being “un-Islamic” by demonstrating by spending day and night in the tent city with men.

Mr. Saleh miscalculated again, stirring animosity not only among women but also among men, who thought he and his supporters were defaming women. “They say [that the women] are immoral,” said a Yemeni journalist.

Last Saturday, thousands of women, including many covered in conservative black chadors, marched to demand that Mr. Saleh stop slandering them.

The protests in Yemen are rightly portrayed in international media as a popular call against poverty, corruption and Mr. Saleh. But there is another game going on in which the people are puppets used by both sides.

For every opposition protest, Mr. Saleh organizes a pro-regime rally. Of course, the opposition exploits the legitimate anger of the people while Mr. Saleh exploits his control of the treasury — by paying most of the people who support him in the streets.

But remember, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, protests in Yemen were ignited by the opposition parties, not by a groundswell of popular indignation. This is one reason Mr. Saleh continues to hang on — he sees the demonstrations as a ploy by the opposition, as opposed to a genuine people’s movement.

Advertisements