The world has gotten used to hearing about democracy protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo in the last few weeks. But a square of the same name (Tahrir is Arabic for liberation) is also the focus of protests in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. But in this Tahrir Square the protesters are demonstrating in favour of the current government not against it. They were there to profess their support to President Ali Abdullah Saleh who announced last week he would not be seeking re-election in 2013. The protesters came from pro-Government parts of the country in a move the opposition has labelled political manoeuvring to make it appear as if pro-Saleh regime sentiment is still strong. (photo:EPA)
The pro-Government protests are a backlash to a major opposition demonstration widely known as the Day of Wrath. Inspired by events across the Red Sea in Egypt and Tunisia, 20,000 demonstrators came out last week to Sanaa University to protest Saleh’s regime which has ruled Yemen for over three decades. People of all ages chanted and held signs with messages against poverty and the government. Many expressed solidarity with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and demanded Saleh step down.
The regime insists it is not in trouble. Prime Minister Ali Mujawar defended the government yesterday saying there was no reason Egypt-style protests should take off in the country. Mujawar accused opposition parties trying to duplicate what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and acting “as if it should be imposed on the people here in Yemen." "Yemen is not Tunisia or Egypt," Mujawar said. "Yemen has its own different situation... Yemen is a democratic country. Through all the stages, elections took place. And therefore this is a democratic regime."
However one person’s democratic regime is another’s dictatorship. Army strongman Saleh took power in a coup in what was then North Yemen in 1978. When the North and South united in 1990 the South accepted Saleh as Head of State of the unified country. He first stood for presidential election in 1999 but the candidate list was whittled down from 31 to 2 by virtue of the strict approvals needed to run. Saleh won with 96.3 percent of the vote. Saleh initially said he would not run in the second election in 2006 but changed his mind. The EU declared the election valid though with “significant shortcomings”. Saleh was re-elected for seven years with 77.2 percent of the vote.
The next election is scheduled for 2013 and Saleh is barred under the Yemeni constitution from seeking a third term of office. However, discussions on prolonging his time in power started last year. Congress, which is dominated by Saleh’s General People's Congress party, is discussing a proposed constitutional amendment to cancel the limit of two consecutive terms for which a president can be elected. The proposed amendment will be submitted to a referendum which will be held simultaneously with parliamentary elections on 27 April.
But after the Day of Rage protest last Wednesday, Saleh apparently had second thoughts. He announced on state TV that April elections would be cancelled along with the constitutional amendment. "I will not extend my mandate and I am against hereditary rule," Saleh said. The hereditary rule comment was a response to suspicion he was grooming his eldest son, Ahmed Saleh, who commands an elite unit of the Yemeni army, to succeed him as president.
Given that Saleh made similar comments prior to the 2006 election, there is widespread doubt he is now serious. The current problems in Yemeni politics started when the mandate of the current parliament was extended by two years to April 2011 following the February 2009 agreement between the GPC and opposition parties to allow dialogue on political reform. There is also need for structural reform. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab region. Poverty is widespread with 45 per cent of its 21.1 million people living on less than $2 a day, according to the UN Development Programme.
Political analysts in Yemen feel that tension will only rise in the next 10 years, fearing that Saleh will never bow down from rule. One Opposition leader said Saleh will eventually be brushed aside. “For the same reason Yemenis revolted against the Imamate regime nearly 50 years ago,” he said. “Saleh will push Yemenis to the extent that they feel the only option left for them is a new revolution, therefore, forcing Yemen to start again from scratch.”