By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
Monday’s killing of over 15 anti-government protesters in the Yemeni city of Taiz, allegedly at the hands of security forces and Republican Guards, is a dangerous turnaround in the two-month-long confrontation between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the opposition, which is calling for his immediate abdication.
Protesters in Sanaa, Al Hudaida and others have also been attacked bringing the total of those injured in the past few days to over 1,000.
More than 45 people were gunned down last month (March 18), when government forces opened fire at protesters gathering in a square in front of Sanaa University. Taghair (Change) Square has become the center of rebellion against the rule of Saleh and has been attracting hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from all over the country. Inspired by the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis have been staging a sit-in in that square demanding the president’s departure.
Similar protests have been taking place across the country, including Aden, capital of southern Yemen and a stronghold for separatists. In addition, anti-government forces have taken control of other towns and hamlets, while senior army generals, once loyal to the president, have since defected and joined the protesters.
The president, on the other hand, has been defiant. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, Saleh has been able to summon hundreds of thousands of supporters to his side. It is difficult to figure out who has the majority, but in recent weeks pro-Saleh rallies have been held only on Fridays and were restricted to the capital.
Yemen’s model is different from that of Tunisia and Egypt. It is also unlike the Libyan example. But as opponents continue to gather momentum, Saleh is quickly losing his options. The resort to violence to quell demonstrators pushes the country into a dark tunnel. So far the demonstrators have kept their rallies peaceful. Only the regime has used force to disperse and intimidate the opposition. A political impasse could turn things around for the worse.
Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, has made a number of initiatives since the rallies began last February. He has ended speculations about handing over power to his son and accepted to limit his term until presidential elections are held before the end of the year. But the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of opposition parties, has rejected such offers, insisting instead on the president’s immediate resignation. And in spite of defections from the ruling party, General Peoples Congress (GPC), and a flurry of political resignations, Saleh has remained steadfast. Earlier this week the JMP made an offer suggesting that the president hand over power immediately to his deputy who in turn will oversee a transitional government that will hold new elections.
The offer may be rescinded after Monday’s bloody events. But it could still prove to be an acceptable compromise in light of signs that the US, the regime’s closest foreign ally, may be distancing itself from Saleh. On Monday the New York Times reported that the Obama administration may be moving away from the Yemeni president, saying that he is incapable of carrying reforms and that he is becoming a liability instead of an asset.
The US position is paramount. Saleh has been portrayed as a key ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda, which is believed to have bases in Yemen. The US has been given access to target suspected Al-Qaeda operatives in remote areas of the country. Saleh’s domestic challenges have proved to be bigger than originally thought. The US, and others, would like to see a peaceful transition of power in Yemen in a way that will not play to the benefit of Al-Qaeda.
As Saleh loses military and tribal backing, Washington and Yemen’s neighbors are worried that chaos could take over. JMP’s latest deal may prove the best way out of the current ordeal, but only if the president accepts it.
Yemen, a country of over 23 million inhabitants, is not easy to govern. This mountainous and rugged country in southern Arabia is beleaguered by economic and social challenges. An uprising of the Houthis in the north, which had claimed hundreds of lives and dispersed thousands, could easily reignite, while southern separatists continue to promote secessionist aspirations. A power vacuum could herald civil strife and a break-up of the country. Worse there are those in the West who warn that Yemen is close to becoming another Somalia where Al-Qaeda will emerge as the biggest beneficiary.
There is a need for a political deal in Yemen if such scenarios are to be avoided. Violence against protesters is not the solution. The president must consider a political way out if he is to save the country from turmoil. Saleh has accepted, in principle, to step down before the end of the year. The opposition must take this into consideration as it attempts to meet its goals.
– Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and a political commentator based in Amman.