See original article on guardian.co.uk Comment is Free
When plans were announced for yesterday’s protests in Sana’a, the social media machine took up Yemen’s torch and branded the country the next Egypt or Tunisia. So did some of the mainstream media.
As the fervour began to grow, Rupert Murdoch and his merry band of sensationalists at the Wall Street Journal inflated the actual 10,000attending an earlier protest on 30 January into a 100,000-person army clamouring for revolution.
To stem the tide of revolutionary rhetoric, President Ali Abdullah Salehpre-empted the demonstrations by announcing that he would not seek to extend his presidential term when it ends in 2013. Directly addressing the opposition’s criticisms, he also promised that his son would not succeed him.
While Saleh’s political aptitude is unmatched in the Arab world, his announcement the day before the protest had little to do with its complete failure.
In contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen’s demonstrations are led by the political opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which has recently taken the initiative to ramp up its activism in preparation for the parliamentary elections scheduled for April.
In spite of Saleh’s pledge to allow international observers to monitor the elections (as has happened in the past), the JMP has insisted on taking to the streets and demanding further concessions.
Yemen’s people, while the poorest in the Arab world, are fully aware of the political games being played by both sides. They are disillusioned, and the “day of rage” lacked popular support.
The numbers of pro-government demonstrators matched those of the opposition in the streets of Sana’a on Thursday. While opposition members gave speeches to a crowd of about 10,000, the same number of pro-government demonstrators marched through the streets hoisting portraits of Saleh above their heads.
As Egypt sank further into violence, prominent Yemeni journalists and activist throughout the country pleaded for demonstrators to remain peaceful but many were doubtful. Business owners barricaded shops, and tanks guarded banks and government buildings. Many were convinced that shots would begin to ring out across Sana’a.
However, as lunchtime came around, demonstrators started filing out. As portraits of Saleh were left in the street, Yemen’s “day of rage” transformed into just another Thursday – the first day of Yemen’s weekend. Qat markets and popular lunch restaurants were bustling by noon. In Yemen, regime change takes a break for the weekend.
Defeated, the opposition demanded that Saleh’s relatives be removed from military leadership positions and vowed to take to the streets again and again until their demands were met. In the light of Saleh’s recent statements, he may be tempted to oblige them. With his promise to step down in 2013, he is now making the transition to the legacy phase of his rule.
Having already set himself up to become the first post-colonial Arab leader to willingly relinquish power, he will begin to cast himself as the magnanimous man of the people. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know that he is even turning a blind eye to booze smuggling, “provided it’s good whisky”.
Racked by a debilitating paranoia, Saleh has savaged the free press in Yemen and made censorship the order of the day. Following two assassinated and two deposed presidents when he took power in 1978, Saleh has been hard on dissent.
After Yemen’s north-south war in 1994, maintaining the country’s unity was the utmost priority for the political leadership. Members of Yemen’s southern secessionist movement have been given no quarter and no freedom to express their dissatisfaction with the regime. Six wars with theHouthi rebels in the north of the country have come and gone, leaving thousands of victims in its wake and one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. To preserve his political legacy, Saleh may now be more hesitant to use force against the two respective movements in the next two years. Posturing as a leader with a gentle hand will also put the his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), in a better position to retain the presidency in 2013.
If Saleh continues to placate the opposition through further political reforms, the JMP may look to 2013 to make its bid for power in Yemen. The Islah party, Yemen’s Islamist political movement, has the best chance to seize the presidency if the GPC loses its hold on power. A frightening prospect, considering that one of Islah’s top leaders, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, is listed as a “globally designated terrorist” by the US treasury department. Considering that power hasn’t changed hands in Yemen since 1978, the danger is real. Yemen’s fate will be decided in 2013 at the polls, not in the streets, although the GPC isn’t exactly unseasoned when it come to stuffing ballot boxes.