March 16, 2011
The Arab Spring is flagging. The toppling of oppressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt has been succeeded by Muammer Gaddafi’s bombing of his own people in Libya. In Yemen, too, a despot is clinging to power. Ali Abdullah Saleh has so far staved off an insurrection. But momentum against him is building. In recent weeks several influential tribes have joined the opposition, and protests are growing. In a country where every member of the population is said to own three guns, these are ominous signs. The endgame is Mr Saleh’s departure; by promising to stand down in 2013 he has already conceded as much. But it would be better for Yemen if he were to go sooner.
Mr Saleh can thank four factors for his survival. First, Yemen is a largely rural society – only three in 10 citizens live in towns. That makes organising an uprising more difficult. Second, the opposition remains disparate and leaderless. Third, the US, which sees Mr Saleh as a useful ally in the fight against militant Islam, continues to back him. Fourth, his patronage network still delivers the support of some tribes and clerics.
But this front is fraying, and Mr Saleh is feeling the pressure. In February he offered to include the opposition in a unity government. This month he promised a referendum on a new constitution, switching from a presidential to a parliamentary system.
The opposition rebuffed both offers, saying it could not sell Mr Saleh’s promises to the street. That is understandable. Mr Saleh’s three decade rule is littered with broken pledges. Even his offer not to stand for re-election in 2013 takes some believing, given his failure to meet a similar personal commitment in 2006.
However, short of a mass uprising, negotiations remain the best way to ease Mr Saleh from power. The opposition should hold its nose and open talks; the US must push him to accede to the protesters’ legitimate demands for democratic reforms. Before negotiations can start, Mr Saleh must prove to the opposition that he is not just playing for time. Removing some of his relatives from their positions in the state apparatus would be a signal that he is prepared to act as well as talk.
The stakes are high. If the stand-off between Mr Saleh and the opposition degenerates into civil war, there is a risk that tribal and religious affinities could suck the Saudis and Iranians into what could become a mini-Congo on the Arabian Peninsula. Such a disaster must be avoided at all costs.
Source: Financial Time