Observed by: Mr. Alaa Isam
Yemen's president, eyeing protests across the Arab world, is trying to stave off popular unrest by offering concessions, but the changes sweeping the region may mean upheaval is not far away.
A wave of sporadic demonstrations has already struck the deeply impoverished and autocratic Arabian Peninsula state, inspired by protests that toppled Tunisia's ruler last month and now threaten to bring down Egypt's president. The Yemen protests, which drew thousands to the streets last week, have so far not translated into a sustained movement against the three-decade rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But the situation is fluid, and may yet change.
“I think Yemen is next up on the parade. They are further along in terms of how long there have been protests ongoing. So that is the next one to watch,” said Theodore Karasik, security analyst at the Dubai-based INEGMA think tank.
Yemen, teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state, is trying to fight a resurgent al Qaeda arm, cement peace with Shi'ite rebels in the north and quell separatism in the south, all in the face of crushing poverty that has left a third of Yemenis suffering from chronic hunger.
Another large rally, due on Thursday in Sanaa, is seen as a barometer of the strength and size of Yemen's opposition, although organisers are coordinating their plans with the authorities to avoid a conflagration.
Should a popular revolt erupt in Yemen, the resulting instability could represent a substantial political and security risk to oil-exporting Gulf Arab neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, with which Yemen shares a porous land border. In a worst case scenario, the country could eventually split in two.
But an uprising in Yemen, where society is heavily armed and tribal conflicts have often led to bloodshed, would probably be messier and unfold more slowly than the outpouring of protest seen elsewhere in the Arab world so far.
Saleh is likely to be able to contain Yemen's large umbrella opposition group, which has so far sought fairly modest concessions and has not asked for his ouster. But an emerging, more marginalised force of young Yemenis without a strong tie-in to the system could make more radical demands.
“He is facing young educated youth who have access to the Internet and access to Facebook and Twitter, and they are reflecting on the experiences of others in Tunisia and Egypt,” said Ibrahim Sharqieh, a Yemen expert at Brookings Doha Centre.
Saleh, seeing the seriousness of the threat, has called a meeting of the parliament and Shoura council for Wednesday, and is expected to deliver a major political statement although officials have offered few clues as to what it may contain.
Saleh has already offered some concessions on presidential term limits and pledged to raise salaries of civil servants and military personnel by at least $47 a month, no small move in a country where around 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
“Saleh is obviously watching Egypt very closely,” analyst and blogger Brian O'Neill wrote on his blog about Yemen politics, Always Judged Guilty. “On Thursday he can either crack down and attempt to crush the protests, or he can use the time between then and now to offer legitimate concessions, including a pledge to not run again and to open up the process.” Yemen's current rules would require Saleh to step down as president when his term ends in 2013. But some members of the ruling party riled the opposition late last year with a proposal floated to lift that limit.
Yemen's opposition tried to rally against the idea in December, but failed to bring large numbers to the street.
But seeing the protests in Tunisia and discontent at home, Saleh's party backtracked, proposing a new amendment that would limit a president to two terms of either five or seven years but would still allow Saleh to run again.
Now, the ruling party has gone further, offering to negotiate on constitutional changes regarding term limits and rejigging an offer for a unity government in which opposition parties would get just over a third of cabinet posts. But the opposition has yet to take the bait.
Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani said Saleh would have to make a big move, and had at most a 6-month window to make meaningful concessions to avert a popular uprising.
“I think they need something more to quiet the street. I think if the ruling party does not come out with something earth-shattering we are going to go the way of Egypt, much slower, much bloodier,” he said.
Iryani said Saleh would need to offer greater local control of government, while others suggested he would also need to bring in international observers for parliamentary elections due later this year to bring the opposition on board.
But Saleh, with a reputation as a political survivor, has already come through longstanding unrest in Yemen's north and south.