- By Tom FinnTom Finn is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen.
"Why do you guys in the West keep falling for the same old tricks?" Yusif Al-Ra’adi, a lean-looking student who passed up his studies in engineering back in May to join his country’s uprising, told me as we sat in the shade of a sheet of blue tarpaulin in Sana’a’s Change Square. "He [Saleh] has no intention whatsoever of stepping down, it’s a dance, this is a political agreement that really means nothing to us."
Such skepticism throws cold water on the hopes raised by Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decree this week granting his deputy the right to sign a deal with the opposition for a transfer of power. Saleh is currently in Saudi Arabia recovering from chest wounds he sustained in a booby-trap bombing of his palace in early June. He surprised observers with an announcement that Yemen’s Vice President, Abed Mansour Hadi, could now sign a deal drawn up by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which offers Saleh immunity in exchange for early presidential elections. A peaceful way out of this year’s bout of bloody demonstrations and swirling financial and political turmoil might still be on the cards.
But the sense of optimism rippling though the pages of western newspapers has been much harder to detect here on the grubby streets of the capital, Sana’a. "No deal, no maneuvering, the president should leave!" was the cry that rang out through the city on Tuesday as tens of thousands of men, women, and children spilled out onto the streets to decry the latest attempt by the country’s president to evade pressure to step down. Yemen’s beleaguered but tenacious demonstrators have endured months of bloody repression, tit for tat political negotiations, and hollow concessions. Now — unsurprisingly — they say that Saleh’s agreement delegating "constitutional capabilities" to his deputy is nothing but a ploy by the embattled leader to buy himself more time.
The decree certainly has its shortfalls. While Hadi technically now has the ability to sign Saleh’s premiership away, Saleh retains the right to reject the deal if he desires. Yemenis have learned over the years not to put much faith in Saleh’s promises. More importantly, there is no reference to the fate of the institution currently propping up the regime in Saleh’s absence: the armed forces, large portions of which remain under the control of Saleh’s son, nephew, and cousins.
For all those problems, the deal might still look attractive to some parts of the opposition. With Yemen locked into a seemingly unbreakable stalemate between an absentee president and a fractured opposition coalition in the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), some analysts are touting early presidential elections as a potential escape route to Yemen’s political turmoil. But while the JMP might jump at the chance to face off against Saleh and his ruling party in the polls it’s unlikely that elections would do anything to placate the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who remain camped out in tented shantytowns across the country.
"Presidential elections now will only replace one dictator with another. The youth expect a genuine solution and not a democracy charade," says Salem Ben Mubarak, a leading member of a coordinating council on Facebook called the Youth Revolution for Change. "We want fundamental constitutional changes and fundamental government behavioral change and we will not rest until our demands are met." Salem’s views echo that of thousands of other youthful pro-democracy protesters who feel that the formal opposition in its ongoing negotiations with the incumbent regime is selling them down the river. As the days drag by, Salem and his counterparts fear that their peaceful pro-democracy movement will soon be eclipsed by Yemen’s tribal warlords and military chiefs who’ve been jockeying for position in Saleh’s absence.
For now Saleh’s strategy appears to be working — as he drags the hoped for transition out, the patchy alliance of anti-Saleh actors is starting to splinter. For the first time in months the painful issue of north-south division (North and South Yemen were unified under Saleh in 1990, but southerners often accuse the north of discrimination) has resurfaced and is preventing opposition groups from forming a solid and united front.
But protest leaders, who point to the large and ongoing demonstrations, hope for something more. "There should be comprehensive reforms in the country’s governmental institutions," argues Alaa Aj Jarban, a young protest leader from the southern port city of Aden. He, like other protestors, calls for a referendum on the political system, and elections for president and the government. And unlike some Arab protest movements, Jarban is eager for international assistance, especially financial and technical assistance to "help Yemenis build a new democratic and civil country."
As Saleh continues to ponder his next move in Riyadh, "the situation," as locals call it here, is growing increasingly desperate. Frustration is giving way to outright anger as the cost of food and fuel continues to skyrocket in a country where some 40 percent of the population of 23 million people live on less than $2 a day and one third face chronic hunger. For those unable to afford petrol-powered generators, electricity is now a fleeting luxury, flicking on for an hour each day and off again for ten. Indeed, the United Nations has recently accused the government of trying to pressure and punish the civilian population by cutting off access to electricity, fuel, and water.
How things play out in the next few weeks will be determined by whether the United States and Yemen’s neighbors in the gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, become convinced that the impending collapse of Yemen merits a more interventionist role. So far their only real achievement has been to keep Saleh in Saudi Arabia who despite giving periodic reminders that he’ll be "returning to Sana’a soon," seems unlikely to be flying back anytime in the near future. Otherwise, with political negotiations continually flopping, Yemen’s economy faltering, and tensions running high among protesters on the ground, the fate of this impoverished country will end up being thrashed out by Yemen’s fractious armed forces and powerful tribal chiefs. Yemen’s tenacious democratic protest movement deserves something more.
Tom Finn is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen.