The Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh is under increased pressure to step down following the defection of key tribal leaders, government ministers, diplomats and army units who have now pledged support for anti-government protesters.
This comes after the shooting deaths of over 40 protesters outside the Sana’a University, in the country’s capital, on Friday 18 March, by gunmen loyal to President Saleh.
On March 25, tens of thousands of people marched in the capital, Sana’a, to demand Saleh step down, AlJazeera.net said that day. However, Saleh gave a defiant speech to supporters, insisting he would only hand over power “to capable, responsible hands”.
The parliament, dominated by President Saleh’s ruling party, has also approved imposing 30 days of Emergency Law which gives state security authorities additional power to crack down on dissent, including banning protests, the right to arrest and detaining 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.
Speaking to GLW earlier in the month, University of Sydney academic and expert on Yemen, Sarah Phillips, said that the future of Yemen’s leadership was unpredictable however noted the importance of the actions of President Saleh’s inner circle and the tribes. Speaking on potential outcomes 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 amongst high-profile defectors. Al Jazeera reported that Gen. 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 Gen. Ahmar’s defection, according to Al Jazeera.
In an address on state television early last week, Al Jazeera reported that President Saleh had called defectors “stupid” and dismissed their actions as “foolishness”.
President Saleh has ruled Yemen for the last 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 with The Wall Street Journal reporting on Friday March 24 that Gen. Ahmar is negotiating a deal with President 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 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, with Yemen based doctor and political activist Hamza Shargabi calling the implementation of Emergency Law a “formality” for the type of policing that already exists in Yemen and saying that the government had paid “thugs” to hold pro-government demonstrations in Sana’a.
The economic vulnerability of Yemenis is more severe than many their regional counterparts, with unemployment and food poverty high amongst the population of 23 million.
United States Defence 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”, according to Al Jazeera. Gates said that the US had not planned for a “post-Saleh” Yemen.
Written for Green Left Weekly.