Yemenis hopeful of democratic change
by Kieu Van
Yemen's opposition has given its support to the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) initiative under which President Ali Abdullah Saleh will step down within 30 days of signing the plan.
However, the day before (Sunday) mass demonstrations again broke out, with protesters calling for criminal proceedings to be taken against the president and for his immediate departure from office.
All sides are in agreement that a rapid end to the political crisis is desperately needed before it plunges the Middle Eastern country into chaos.
Meanwhile, President Saleh is expected to agree next Wednesday to ceding power within a month, according to the GCC.
Government and opposition support for the GCC initiative to end the uprising, which is threatening to drive the country into large-scale bloodshed and further destabilise the Middle East and North Africa, is seen as an encouraging step.
However, analysts say a peaceful resolution to the conflict is far from certain.
Pham Phu Phuc, a former bureau chief for the Vietnam News Agency in the Middle East, said there were three major hurdles that needed to be overcome to end the chaos.
First, he said rebels in the south of the Republic of Yemen, which came into existence in 1990, are continuing to demand an independent state.
Second, President Saleh's government controls only 50 to 60 per cent of the country's area, with the rest remaining under tribal leadership.
Third, Yemen's northern area is a major al-Qaeda base.
Phuc said that unless al-Qaeda was neutralised, a transitional government would fail to hold on to control.
Both Saudi Arabia and the United States, Yemen's chief source of financial aid, are concerned that the current chaos in Yemen will strengthen al-Qaeda's hold on the Arabian Peninsula.
Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprising in Yemen was initiated by opposition parties which then attracted support of tribal leaders. The mostly young protesters come from all walks of life, from tribesmen to northern Shiites and southern rebels.
However, Phuc said President Saleh was an old fox when it came to politics. Despite wily manoeuvring, Saleh, under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the US, finally agreed to a "political road map".
Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi professor of politics, agreed that Saleh was no political pushover.
"Saleh is a smart politician and he wants to remain in power until 2013. That's his plan," Reuters quoted al-Dakhil as saying.
"Notice that he accepted the Gulf initiative in the context of the constitution. That means he is entertaining the idea that constitutionally he has the right to remain until the end of his term."
The opposition parties – comprised of Islamists, Arab nationalists and leftists – said that acceptance of the plan would not necessarily end the protests.
Under the GCC-brokered deal, the two sides will sign an agreement next Wednesday in an attempt to end the threat of civil war and bring democratic reform.
Saleh has ruled in Yemen for 32 years. Growing popular discontent with poverty, corruption and lack of opportunity galvanised into a mass protest earlier this year following demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt.
Protesters do not trust Saleh and worry that the ruling party and the opposition, which served in parliament before the protests, will ignore calls for democratic reform.
Yesterday, tens of thousands of demonstrating Yemenis in the Red Sea port of Hudaida chanted, "The people want a departure, not an initiative."
During the protracted unrest the country has suffered economically and the price of goods has rocketed.
Yemen analysts worry that poverty will reach a critical point in the Arab world's poorest country, where 40 per cent of its 23 million people live on US$2 a day or less and one-third face chronic hunger.
The price of cooking gas has quadrupled since protests began. Meanwhile, the Yemeni rial has risen from 214 against the US dollar nine weeks ago to 243, with economists fearing the value of the republic's currency will plunge further.
"The longer this goes on, the worse it is for the economy. As the economy continues to decline, you'll see more and more people on the streets, but it's not yet certain whose side they'll be on," said Gregory Johnsen, a scholar on Yemen from the Jordan Times.
Yemen's Trade and Industry Minister Hisham Sharaf said the three-month political crisis had caused $5 billion in economic losses. Meanwhile, the Yemeni private sector estimated their losses at $1.5 billion.
More than 130 people have been killed in clashes with security forces and Saleh supporters since protests broke out on January 16. — VNS