Sunday, February 6, 2011

Yemen protests not major threat to regime: analysts

Observed by: Mr. Alaa Isam

Unlike uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, protests in Yemen are not a major threat to its longtime leader, who has strong international backing and proven ability to survive crises, analysts say.

Tens of thousands of protesters turned out for a "day of rage" against President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Thursday, but tensions have since calmed and opposition groups are calling for the implementation of promised reforms -- without announcing more demonstrations.

"I don't see strong indicators that would suggest that they would be able to overthrow Saleh," said Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center.

"The Yemeni opposition, they are able so far to start protests, but they are unable to maintain it, they are unable to maintain momentum," he said.

And while a large number of protesters turned out on Thursday, "the regime ... was able to send equal numbers of protesters in the street," Sharqieh said, adding that Saleh has faced and survived significant challenges in the past.

"Saleh is a smart guy, he's a survivor, he's managed to be in power in a very difficult country, in a very difficult situation for over 30 years, and this is not the first... crisis he is facing in the country."

Saleh has ruled without interruption through Cold War division, civil war, a rebellion in the north, a revived southern secessionist movement and an Al-Qaeda insurgency, among other threats.

He moved to calm opposition discontent on Wednesday, announcing that he would freeze proposed constitutional changes that would have enabled to remain president for life.

This was a "strong move on his side, and something that would help him," Sharqieh said.

Saleh has also said he is against hereditary rule, in response to suspicions he was grooming his son to succeed him, pledged that controversial April elections would be postponed, and announced new social security measures.

The opposition has demanded that Saleh make good on his promises, and that until he does so, it will keep boycotting parliament.

In Yemen, "these aren't broad-based protests like we see in Tunisia or Egypt," said Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program.

"I think what's going on ... is elite power players trying to jockey for position ahead of some kind of negotiation," he said.

"People are trying to maximise their positions ahead of that to get more concessions from the government before going out for some kind of settlement," Boucek added.

"Within Yemen, I don't think anybody really wants to see a revolution happen."

That also goes for the international community, he said.

"Nobody wants to see the Yemeni government fall. Regardless of what you think of President Saleh or his government, the international community needs this Yemeni government to fightterrorism."

"I think they (the regime) probably think they have it under control for the time being. I think they know the Americans are not going to push for big change, the Americans don't want to see him (Saleh) go," Boucek said.

In Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, where oil production is dwindling andunemployment is high, the economy poses a bigger threat, he said.

"At the end of the day ... the biggest threat to President Saleh is the economy," Boucek said. "That is what will destabilise the regime and threaten the state."

"The protests on Thursday were closer to party mobilisation than popular, and were not an expression of the popular will," said Ali Saif Hassan, the executive director of the Political Development Forum in Sanaa.

"The slogans were rehearsed, there were no women, and the protesters dispersed at an arranged time," he said.

That time, according to AFP correspondents, was in the early afternoon, when many Yemenis relax and chew qat leaves, a mild and wildly popular narcotic.

"The youth of Yemen, where 70 percent of the population is under 30, have every reason to be angry, because of poverty, unemployment," Hassan said.

"But at the same time, Yemen does not have a civil society with a national agenda capable of leading such a movement."

"The southerners have their agenda, as do the Huthis (Shiite rebels) in the north, or the Salafists (religious fundamentalists)," Hassan added. "Yemen has a better chance of disintegration" than a popular uprising.


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