Yemen: Pressure on Saleh as protests defy killings

Issue 

The Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh is under increased pressure to step down after the defection in recent days of key tribal leaders, government ministers, diplomats and army units. The defectors have pledged support for anti-government protesters.

Tens of thousands of people marched in the capital, Sana’a, on March 25 to demand Saleh step down, AlJazeera.net said that day. However, the article said Saleh gave a defiant speech to supporters, insisting he would only hand over power “to capable, responsible hands”.

The defections and protests follow the March 18 killing of more than 50 protesters outside the Sana’a University by gunmen loyal to Saleh.

The parliament, dominated by Saleh’s ruling party, has also approved imposing a 30 day –long “state of emergency” that gives state security authorities additional power to crack down on dissent.

Powers include the ability to ban protests, increased rights to arrest and detain suspects, and media censorship.

With some tribes and senior government ministers shifting their support to opposition forces, the situation in Yemen has reached a tipping point.

University of Sydney academic and expert on Yemen, Sarah Phillips, told the March 6 Green left Weekly that the future of Yemen's leadership was unpredictable, but noted the importance of the actions of Saleh’s inner circle and the tribes.

Phillips said: “This will, more likely, come down to what the tribes do and, most importantly, it will come down to what the people around the president do.”

General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar is among the high-profile defectors. Reuters said on March 23 that Ahmar was “commonly regarded as the second most powerful man in the country before he decided to defect”.

Opposition forces are sceptical about the motives behind Ahmar’s defection, AlJazeera.net said.

AlJazeera.net said on March 24 that Saleh had called defectors “stupid” in an address on state television, dismissing their actions as “foolishness”.

Saleh has ruled Yemen for the past 32 years. His current term is due to expire in September 2013.

His most recent letter of negotiation with opposition groups offered parliamentary elections and a referendum on a new constitution before the end of 2011. Opposition groups have rejected this offer.

However, leadership change could be imminent. The March 24 Wall Street Journal said Ahmar is negotiating a deal with Saleh that would result in their immediate resignations.

A deal of this sort would effectively meet the demand of opposition forces for the resignation of the president. However, further details about who would be involved in transitional and future governance of Yemen remains unclear.

In what Reporters Without Borders described as a sign of nervousness on the part of the authorities, foreign journalists from Britain and the United States have been forced to leave the country.

Al Jazeera’s offices were also shut down by state authorities and all press accreditation for Yemen based staff revoked.

Protesters in Yemen with access to the internet have used their blogs and Twitter to send updates on the protests.

Yemen-based doctor and political activist Hamza Shargabi called the implementation of an emergency law a “formality” of the type of policing that already exists in Yemen.

Shargabi said the government had paid thugs to hold pro-government demonstrations in Sana’a.

The poverty of ordinary people in Yemen is more severe than many of their regional counterparts. Unemployment is high among the population of 23 million.

United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the US has had a “good working relationship with President Saleh” and called him “an important ally in the counter-terrorism arena", AlJazeera.net reported on March 24.

Gates said that the US had not planned for a “post-Saleh” Yemen.

In another case of brutal repression of protesters by an Arab regime, AlJazeera.net reported on March 26 that an eyewitness said at least 20 people had been shot dead in Syria when security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators.