Why Yemenis Doubt Their President's Offer to Step Down

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Hani Mohammed / AP

Pedestrians walk past Yemeni vendors on their way to the entrance of the old city in Sanaa, Yemen.

After more than three decades in power, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has announced he will not be seeking re-election when his term expires in 2013, nor will he hand the presidency over to his son. In the wake of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and prompted by street protests calling for him to step down, Saleh's vow is the latest in a string of concessions by the increasingly unpopular leader of the Arab world's poorest nation. But will it be enough to placate a growing number of protesters? And will a public used to government subterfuge even believe that Saleh means what he says?

"I present these concessions in the interests of the country. The interests of the country come before our personal interests," Saleh told parliament and military generals on Wednesday. "I will not extend my mandate and I am against hereditary rule."

This is a quick turnaround for the President, who just last month asked Yemen's parliament to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stay in power past the end of his mandate. The move sparked only small protests in the capital, but when the Yemeni people heard about the successful Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, crowds of thousands started to fill the streets.

On Jan. 27, over 10,000 demonstrators congregated at the capital's main university and smaller groups rallied in rural areas across the country. Like other Arab leaders fearing the Tunisia effect, Saleh quickly started to make motions towards reform. He proposed raising salaries for all civil, armed and security services; ordered income taxes to be slashed in half; and commanded his government to tightly control prices. On Wednesday he told legislators to freeze the constitutional amendment to extend his mandate.

But in Yemen, many see these proposals as empty promises that have been made time and time again, only to be broken by their President, who has spent half his life in power. "[Saleh] is playing a new game. He is afraid of what happened in Egypt and Tunisia and wants to divide opinion in Yemen and gain international support," said Khaled al Anesi, a Yemeni human-rights lawyer who is part of a small group of organizers leading Yemen's recent protests. During the run up to the 2006 elections, Saleh publicly stated that he would not nominate himself as a candidate, only to do just that at the last minute. Anesi says the President expertly manipulated the media, getting cronies and loyalists to rally people to parliament and weep in front of state-controlled press as they demanded that he run. Yemen's government has a monopoly on TV and radio. "He wants to lower the levels of anger in society," says Anesi of what many see as just another presidential performance. "He has done this many times before."

Yemenis are highly suspicious of their government and expect to be deceived. When WikiLeaks released a diplomatic cable dated September 2009 that revealed the President had offered to lie to his country and say that U.S. strikes in southern Yemen on suspected al-Qaeda hideouts were carried out by the Yemeni army, Washington braced for a backlash in Yemen's capital of Sana'a. But instead the country reacted with a general shrug of despondency.

The same shrug rippled across Sana'a on Wednesday, in response to the President's promise not to hand power over to his son, Ahmed, who many say is being prepped to lead. Ten years ago, the President also said his son would not succeed him, only to later proclaim that as a citizen, Ahmed has the right to nominate himself for election. A Yemeni journalist tells TIME that Saleh once compared himself and his son to George Bush Snr. and George W. Bush: "The President [Saleh] suggested it is fine for his son to take power after him, like in America with George Bush senior and George W. Bush."

As well as the President's son, Hamid al Ahmar, a prominent figure in the main conservative and religious opposition movement, Islah, has been identified as a possible successor. Ahmar's father helped establish the modern Yemeni republic and his brother is now head of the Hashid confederation, the most powerful tribal alliance in the country. There are also rumors that Brigadier General Ali Mohsen, leader of the Yemen Armed Forces and the President's half-brother, has been preparing himself to lead for some time. Although Ahmar is popular among many Yemenis and has a large amount of political and tribal leverage, Mohsen would have the army on his side, which could tip the scales in his favor if Saleh were to topple rather than leave office willingly.

The President's offer to step down in 2013 comes at an opportune time — the eve of what Yemeni protestors and opposition groups are calling a "day of rage." The demonstration on Thursday, which will call for the President to leave office immediately, is likely to be the largest in Yemen since the copycat protests began, inspired by the Tunisians' ousting of their President, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, in January. In his address on Wednesday, Saleh called on the "opposition to freeze all planned protests, rallies and sit-ins." But a spokesman for Islah told local media that the protests "will go ahead as planned."

Yemeni protests so far have been relatively ineffectual compared to those in its neighboring countries, often led only by Yemen's small middle-class with Facebook-organized youth rallies. Tomorrow's protest is expected to be much larger — led this time by opposition groups, who command a huge amount of support among the public. Whether this will yield results is uncertain.

Daniel Masterson, a Yemen researcher at Harvard University, says that Yemen's government is still strong in the face of internal opposition. "The key factor in the success of the so-called popular revolution in Tunisia was the turning of the army," he tells TIME. Saleh has made sure that his closest allies from his family, his tribe and the army overlap, solidifying his grip on power. "There is no evidence that the relationship between the regime and the army is weakening [in Yemen]," Masterson adds. "It is worth noting, however, that no one saw Tunisia coming."

And although analysts in Yemen agree that it is unlikely Saleh will be toppled like his counterpart in Tunisia, there will certainly be fears in Washington about what Yemen, an ally in the war on terror, might look like after if it does lose its leader. Despite a blatant disregard for human rights, Saleh has managed to juggle Yemen's seemingly infinite problems to keep a modicum of stability. But racked by poverty, corruption, water and oil crises, unremitting unemployment, two civil wars, battling tribes and an increasingly active al-Qaeda offshoot, Yemen is far from stable. Whether power is transferred democratically or snatched by an opposition member or a tribal sheikh, it won't be an easy task for Saleh's successor to keep the country together.