Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced today in an emergency parliamentary meeting that he would not run again in Yemen’s upcoming presidential election in 2013. The move is being seen as a major concession to Yemen’s political opposition after Tunisia-inspired protests have broken out across the country over the past two weeks.
“President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced that he would freeze the draft constitutional amendments that are before Parliament denying allegations that there is an intention for hereditary rule in Yemen,” reads a statement from the official Saba news agency in reference to proposed legislation that would abolish presidential term limits and speculation that the Mr. Saleh is going to hand the presidency over to his son Ahmed Saleh.
He added that he will not seek another presidential term in 2013.
Saleh's announcement comes one day before the largest day of demonstrations calling for an end to the corruption of his regime are planned to take place in Yemen’s capital, Sana. The constitutional amendments that Saleh referred to in his speech are part of key contention points between the opposition and the ruling party.
Indeed, the mood remains tense on Sanaa’s streets, crawling with soldiers this morning as the city waits to see what will happen on Thursday in what has been dubbed Yemen’s "day of wrath," using the name Egyptian protesters gave to one of their demonstrations last week.
“[Saleh’s concession] is a reaction to the internal developments in Yemen nationwide, and the developments in the entire region, after what happened in Tunisia and what we are seeing happen in Egypt,” says Hafez Albukari, president of a local, independent nongovernmental organization called the Yemen Polling Center. “He wants to send a clear message to the Yemeni people that he will do some reforms and he will not run again, but I think we should wait for actual implementation of these promises.”
Too little, too late?
And while Saleh's declaration appears to be one step in the direction of prodemocracy reforms, Yemen's opposition says that the president's announcement is too little, too late. They claimed that despite the attempt to quell discontent, Thursday's protests are scheduled to go on as planned
It will be “theatrics” like the “play of 2006,” when Saleh had announced that he would not run again for the presidency, but then withdrew because of so-called public pressure, Mr. Ashal continued.
And just as Egyptians are not content with the extent of President Hosni Mubarak’s conciliatory gestures, Ashal said that if Yemen’s president really wanted to revive Yemen’s political system, he would announce plans to neutralize Yemen’s military state and decentralize the power system in Yemen, which now is largely viewed to reside solely in the hands of the president.
Yemen Expert at Princeton University Gregory Johnsen agrees that whatever Saleh’s concessions are to the opposition, they are going to need to be big in order to initiate any real change.
“Certainly the opposition could use the events of the past few weeks to its advantage, but at the moment few trust the current government,” Mr. Johnsen wrote in an e-mail to the Monitor. “So the problem becomes: What can the government say or do to the appease those who believe it will break its pledge just as it has in the past,”
All sides are keen to avoid the sort of mass chaos that has struck Egypt during recent weeks. In Yemen — where small arms proliferation is rampant — chaos could become violent very quickly.
Furthermore, Washington remains concerned about the instability in Yemen due to the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the branch of the international terrorist group responsible for two major attack attempts against the US in a little over a year.
Saleh’s move isn’t the only attempt by an Arab leader to avoid mass similar to what has befallen Tunisia and Egypt. Yesterday, Jordanian King Abdullah announced that he would dissolve his cabinet after antigovernment protests broke out in his country as well.