Yemen: Why Salih must go now

As turmoil continued in Yemen yesterday, President Salih 
offered to step down by January next year after organising new parliamentary elections. The opposition has rejected this – and rightly so. He should go immediately.

Tying his departure to elections would provide Salih with an excuse to cling on beyond January, on the grounds that elections could not be organised in time. The elections that were due next month have already been delayed by two years and on March 10 they were postponed again – allegedly because the electoral registers were not ready.

There is no good reason why elections have to be conducted with Salih manipulating them from the driving seat, and there are plenty of reasons why he should not be around when they occur. A presidential aide quoted by al-Jazeera yesterday said: "Ali Abdullah Salih will not leave without knowing who he is handing over to." In other words, he wants to stay in power in order to shape the elections' outcome.

Salih has also invoked the scaremongering argument used earlier by Mubarak in Egypt: "Après moi le déluge". He warned yesterdayof a bloody civil war if he is forced out of office. There may well be trouble after he goes, but there will be serious trouble too if he stays. It is already happening and the longer he remains in power the worse it is likely to get. 

The United States, meanwhile, is still reluctant to abandon Salih. Without declaring support for him, it continues to fret about "instability" and yesterday defence secretary Robert Gates refused to be drawn on whether the Yemeni president should step down immediately. "I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen," he said.

Short-sightedly, US policy towards Yemen continues to be shaped by concerns about terrorism, and very little else. The US media perpetuates this by continuing to portray Salih as some kind of bulwark against al-Qaeda. The latest example came yesterday from the Washington Post:

"According to news wire reports and Internet postings by Yemenis, Saleh’s army repelled an attack by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on a military position east of Lawdar, a city in the southern part of the country, killing 12 militants and injuring five."

The fact of the matter is that Salih has a vested interest in claiming victories against al-Qaeda but not in actually defeating it. The continuation of militant activity in Yemen is what he relies on for international support.

Following his declaration of a state of emergency at the weekend, Salih is now seeking to legitimise it through an act of parliament. The text of the draft emergency law has been published (in Arabic) on al-Masdar's website. It provisions are truly draconian, restricting all forms of media, travel and public meetings, even regulating the opening of shops and allowing for the "temporary takeover" of property.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 March 2011