Yemeni President Saleh Clings to Power as Allies Desert Him

President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Outgoing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Photographer: Gamal Noman/AFP/Getty Images

Ismail Aljelae is planning for the day when President Ali Abdullah Saleh steps down. He has formed a party and is training its members to run for parliamentary elections in a democratic Yemen.

Aljelae began thinking about forming the Democratic Future Party at the start of the anti-Saleh protests that erupted in February. Back then, he expected Saleh to last in power just a bit longer than Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was forced to step down 18 days after a popular uprising.

“I gave Saleh a month,” said Aljelae in a May 28 interview at a Sana’a hotel. “But his skin turned out to be thick, and he’s still with us today.”

Saleh has hung on to power even as domestic and international allies deserted him and a crackdown on protesters as well as clashes with a former ally killed more than 200 people. A fragmented opposition, army units headed by family members and the lack of authoritative institutions such as the military in Egypt that can tell him the game is up have helped sustain him, said Gregory Gause, a professor at the University of Vermont, in response to e-mailed questions.

The events of the past few months have cost Yemen, the poorest Arab state, $4 billion and threaten to destroy the country, Minister of Industry and Trade Hisham Sharaf said in an interview May 24. Sana’a has been divided in two, with Saleh’s supporters camped in a square in the southern Sab’een part of the capital and protesters at the Taghyeer or Change Square in the northwest Sitteen area.

String of Excuses

Saleh has bought time by flip-flopping on a Western-backed accord, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, that provides for him to step down within 30 days of signing it. While the opposition and Saleh’s party have signed the pact, Saleh has refused to do so, offering a string of excuses, the latest of which is his insistence that all parties sign at a public ceremony.

Violence escalated after the GCC last week dropped efforts to broker an agreement. Security forces stormed the central square in the city of Taiz killing about 20 protesters, Abdulrahim al-Samee, a doctor at the Taiz field clinic, said today.

At dinner parties and qat chews, daily gatherings where guests sit on carpeted floors and chew mild narcotic qat leaves, the conversation inevitably turns to how long Saleh can survive as president. While some give him a few days, others see him lasting until the next presidential election in 2013.

Saleh says he came to power in a democratic election and what’s happening is tantamount to a coup. He says even if he steps down, he won’t leave Yemeni politics.

Hampering Efforts

Divisions have surfaced in the protesters’ camp, hampering the efforts of the opposition Joint Meeting Parties and the youths who began the anti-Saleh movement to speak with one voice and form a credible alternative to the president.

“The opposition appears to be united only in their opposition to President Saleh,” said Christopher Boucek, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on May 27. “This tactical cooperation will likely dissipate if Saleh steps down.”

In addition to the youth, the anti-Saleh camp includes socialists, liberals, Zaydi Shiites and the Islamist Islah Party, the most organized group in the six-member Joint Meeting Parties. Islah includes mostly moderate Sunni Islamists as well as hardliners led by Sheikh Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani. The U.S. has designated al-Zindani a terrorist, accusing him of a role in financing al-Qaeda and alleging he has been a spiritual leader to Osama bin Laden.

‘Work Together’

“I don’t get the sense that these people can work together effectively to force him out, or at least have not been able to do so up to now,” said Gause. “It’s one of the reasons Saleh has lasted all these years, not just these past few months.”

Saleh supporters say those differences mean the ruling party General People’s Congress will remain the most viable political party in town, even if Saleh steps down.

“The GPC still has the largest grassroots support and I predict the new president will be from the GPC,” said Abdul-Karim al-Eryani, Saleh’s political adviser. “There’s a lack of homogeneity among the opposition and I think even before the presidential elections, the opposition may not remain united.”

The divisions were manifested in the treatment of women and liberals by conservative Islah members whom Aljelae says are seeking to control the protesters’ camp and their message.

Protest Organizers

Samia al-Haddad, one of the protest organizers, said the first weeks of rallies were heady as she and other Yemeni women worked on equal terms alongside the male demonstrators to organize rallies and set up media, medical and security.

“For the first time in my life, I felt like a complete human being,” said al-Haddad, a 39-year-old program communication specialist, at a qat chew on May 21.

All that changed, however, when Islah conservatives joined the protesters at Change Square. They imposed strict gender segregation rules that don’t exist in Yemen, said al-Haddad. Women and men who defied the restrictions were beaten up, she said. Female protesters, who already wore black cloaks, were ordered to cover their hair, she said.

Al-Haddad and other Yemenis who want Saleh to leave, say the tensions don’t mean the protesters have regretted their movement and want Saleh to stay.

“Those tensions are a natural process of social negotiations,” said Abdul-Ghani al-Eryani, a political analyst.

“The pseudo liberal social climate under Saleh was a bribe given by the regime to the middle class,” he added. “In a new system, society will be more honest with itself and these personal liberties will have to be gained through laws and parties.”

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