[At the start of 2011], Ali Abdullah Saleh was the third longest-serving Arab head of state, currently in power. Today, he is soon to be crowned the longest-serving current leader, following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the toppling of the Gaddafi regime after more than 40 oppressive years in power. Saleh came to power in 1978, and has managed to remain in charge of a country that is not easy to govern. All his predecessors were either killed, or overthrown in adverse circumstances.
Ali Abdullah Saleh’s direct predecessor, President Ahmed al-Ghashmi, ruled for only eight months before being assassinated by a briefcase packed with explosives, sent to him via an envoy of the then President of South Yemen Salim Ali Rubai. President Ibrahim al-Hamdi, who preceded al-Ghashmi, was also assassinated after ruling for three years. Prior to that, President Abdul Rahman al-Iryani was removed from power by a military coup, and so on and so forth.
Yemen has always been considered an unstable state, with its complex demographics and rugged terrain. Today the country is facing a severe test, as the public have openly rejected several undemocratic practices of the regime, such as its continuation in power and senior positions being reserved for relatives [of the ruling regime]. In this most critical moment, President Saleh has discovered that his allies have quickly abandoned him, whilst he is being besieged by protestors, and that he now stands alone at the helm of power.
As is the case in all Arab countries, Yemen does not possess a system for a peaceful and smooth transfer of power. Any attempt to replace the state leadership would be a thoroughly risky venture. Political change might come in the form of a “quick birth” as occurred in Egypt, where developments occurred rapidly without sustaining heavy losses. However we could also see a long and painful labor, as is the case in Libya, where over 6,000 people have lost their lives in the space of ten days.
Are we about to witness Sana’a adopting the same approach which prevailed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square? Are we going to see protestors, demonstrations, media pressure and the peaceful transfer of power, or will Yemen resort to gunfire, as we see in Libya today?
The Yemeni question is complicated indeed. Power is being shared by a number of tribes, and half of the country seems to be advocating a return to secession. President Saleh, who has survived in power for three long decades, built his rule upon an intricate web of balances, rivalries and alliances. Today, it appears that his rivals have ganged up on him, whilst many of his allies have abandoned him. Suddenly the opposition is no longer listening to the regime’s warnings against change, which could result in the secession of the south, or potential tribal or sectarian schisms in the north. The regime may be correct to issue such warnings, but the situation in Yemen has not improved a great deal under its management, and opposition forces are quick to highlight this. They believe that the regime is incapable of modernizing and developing Yemen, and regard its lengthy domination of power as utterly unacceptable. Furthermore, the opposition refuses to allow the regime’s leaders to determine who will succeed them.
Although the Yemeni regime is now facing tremendous challenges, as the entire political spectrum, regardless of their differences, have ventured to take to the streets to demand that Saleh steps down, there remains hope that the birth of political change will be peaceful.
President Saleh has already responded to some demands from the protestors – he agreed to abstain from renewing his presidential term, and pledged that power would not be bequeathed, nor would elections be rigged. Yet Saleh’s major problem when confronting the protesting masses is his lack of credibility. The Yemenis believe that President Saleh has promised a lot, and broken all of these promises. The Yemeni opposition wants to take advantage of the current international focus on the region, in order to bring about change no matter the cost. However if change is forced in Yemen, this would be a risky venture that could see the country descend into anarchy. In contrast, a peaceful change would preserve the president’s dignity, and satisfy the demands of the masses. However, what is clear is that if no change occurs, the country will descend into further chaos and potential secession.