Yemen: No place for change
Despite the eruption of Tunisian inspired protests in Sana'a and other cities in Yemen calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, regime change seems unlikely. Iona Craig reports
24 Jan 11

Despite the eruption of Tunisia-inspired protests in Sana’a and other cities Yemen calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, regime change seems unlikely. Iona Craig reports.

As the ripple effects of the Tunisia uprising continue one voice has shouted louder than any other in the regions poorest state.  Protest leader Tawakkol Karman was released this morning by Yemeni authorities after she was arrested for calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

Reports have said she will remain on hunger strike until 18 of her supporters, arrested on Sunday, are also released.

I met Karman, director of Women Journalists Without Chains and member of opposition party Islah, during the trial of recently sentenced journalist Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye. She is one of a growing number of educated young Yemenis willing to stand up to the authorities, in a country where those who do so risk lengthy imprisonment, without contact from family or any legal representation and face possible torture.

Karman led two Tunisian inspired protests in the capital Sana’a last week calling on President Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for more than 32 years, to “Leave before you are forced to leave”. Further protests have taken place in Yemen’s southern city of Aden and the highland city of Taizz.

But despite the demonstrations, which led to one protestor being shot dead in Aden on Sunday, it seems unlikely, although not impossible, that any of these activities will bring down the 64 year-old president and his dominant General People’s Congress Party (GCP). Only a joining of Yemenis with grievances against the government- and there are many of them: southern separatists, northern rebels; not to mention Yemenis in general who have been let down by a weak and corrupt government; could cause a realistic threat.

Unlike Tunisia the US and its allies have a considerable interest in the political stability of the fragile gulf state. There is fear over the consequences of any government collapse in Yemen, where the US regards the threat of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to be a growing one.  The forced removal of Saleh would have the potential to throw the country into turmoil led by tribal power struggles, increased pressure from southern separatists and a Houthi uprising in the north.

The southern provinces of Yemen, formerly the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen until unification in 1990, not only hold the country’s dwindling oil fields, but the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwah are also claimed as the hosts of a significant number of AQAP members.

It is this fear and the way it would play into the hands of AQAP that lies behind US and British policy, which is firmly against a Sudan-style southern succession and any sudden change in national leadership.  Whilst the US and Britain support parliamentary elections, due to take place in April, their support for democracy is in keeping with the Saleh vision of a single Yemen state. Earlier this month Washington raised concerns in a statement about proposals put forward by the government to change Yemen’s constitution. One of the changes would allow Saleh to remain in power for life.

Saleh himself continued this week with his well-known method of juggling. In response to the protests the president announced on Sunday that government and armed forces wages would be raised and there have been unconfirmed reports that income tax will be cut by 50 percent. In his speech Saleh asked for “forgiveness” and called for “dialogue” with the opposition. All while his security services where arresting and imprisoning activists.

Although Karman and all those who have marched through the streets of Sana’a, Taizz and Aden for the last two weeks have shown brave defiance, it seems improbable that any significant change will come about as a result. Saleh may yet agree to stand down in 2013, but Yemen is not a place where you can hold your breath waiting for political promises to be fulfilled. And the invisible hand of the US will no doubt be cupping its fingers around the ear of the long-standing president to have a quiet word.

Iona Craig is a freelance journalist and editor at the Yemen Times, Sana’a.