Yemen's Saleh Hangs On, Still Able to Draw a Crowd

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Ammar Awad / Reuters

Supporters of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh hold posters of him as they shout slogans during a rally in Sanaa April 22. 2011.

Friday always marks a peak in the battle for Yemen's streets, and this week's day of prayer is expected to be no different, two days after President Ali Abdullah Saleh made clear he has no intention of leaving office. The reason for Saleh's confidence in defying Western and Gulf-State pressure to step down, of course, is evident on the streets most Fridays.

Last week, in the north of the capital, Sana'a, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children kneeled in the dusty streets adjoining Sana'a University to pray under the scorching midday sun. As the imam's sermon finished they rose to their feet, like a Mexican wave rippling across the crowd chanting, as one, "the people want the regime to fall!"

Just a few miles south in downtown Sana'a, a long line of horn-blaring Toyota pick-up trucks filled with thickly moustached middle-aged men waving traditional daggers, flags, and cardboard cut-outs of the president, snaked its way toward the presidential mosque where a similar-sized throng had massed to rapturously pledge allegiance to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, their ruler of 33 years.

Such has been the arc of Yemen's slow-burning revolt, now in its fifth month that the competing rallies — the anti-Saleh "Friday of Anger" or "Friday of Departure" met by a pro-regime "Friday of Brotherhood" or "of Unity", the competing slogans changing from week to week — appear more like scenes from an election campaign than portents of insurrection.

On Wednesday, mediators from the Gulf monarchies left the country after failing to revive a deal previously snubbed by Saleh, under which the president of 33 years would stand down in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Opposition leaders said Saleh had refused to sign, and the mission's departure could mark the end of Saudi-led and U.S.-backed efforts to ease Saleh out of power.

Saleh's defiance and gamesmanship, however, are proving that his position may not be as precarious as his opponents would hope. Compared with the feeble efforts of his deposed colleagues in Tunisia and Egypt, Saleh has shown an impressive ability to bring hundreds of thousands of his countrymen onto the streets to back him. So who are these Yemenis who turn out to cheer every Saleh's every word, and why are they protecting a regime that so many of their compatriots seek to oust?

The answer from the anti-Saleh camp is that those out supporting the regime are either its beneficiaries, tribesmen trucked in at government expense, or security forces in civilian clothes.

And the baltagiyah (thugs) among them, middle-aged men dressed in traditional Yemeni garb wielding sharpened sticks, lengths of chain and rusty Kalashnikovs, have shown a great readiness to spill the blood of pro-democracy demonstrators. It was these plain-clothed baltagiyah that killed 52 protestors in a sniper attack at the university in March — an incident that prompted many military officers and government officials to defect from the regime.

Other opposition activists say the pro-Saleh demonstrators are paid for their services, claiming this is proved by leaked documents ostensibly signed by government officials.

But bribes and the security forces can't explain the scale of the crowds still rallying behind Saleh. As Mohammed Jubran, a professor of economics at Sana'a University points out, "Saleh simply doesn't have enough money left in his central bank to foot that kind of a bill."

Rashid Al-Matari, a grizzly-bearded, scrawny tribesman in his early fifties, left his hometown of Beni Matar west of the capital in late March to join the pro-Saleh contingent in Sana'a. He now lives with thousands of other Saleh loyalists in a tent-filled car-park next to a sports stadium on the capital's shabby outskirts. Rashid says he hasn't received a penny for his support, but admits that on Fridays he's given lunch (half a chicken and a bag of rice) and a complimentary bag of the stimulant leaf qat by a man in military uniform he calls Fares.

"We didn't come here for money, we came to protect our nation from chaos and destruction," he says, to grunts of approval from fellow tribesmen around him, their lips coated in a green sheen of powdery qat. "Saleh is our ruler because he was elected in fair elections by the Yemeni people, why should he stand down just because usurpers want to seize power?"

The pro-Saleh camp may be united primarily by fear that his ouster could trigger another bloody civil war. The last one ended in 1994 after the merger of North Yemen and South Yemen into a single country, which remains a fractious and heavily tribal entity where one in three people owns a gun.

"If Saleh goes, we will lose Yemen as we know it, this nation will be split into five," warns Abdillah Swuad, the 34 year-old owner of a jewellery shop in old Sana'a. "Even worse... the Islamists will take control," he says motioning with both his hands to evoke the image of a long beard.

Swuad, like many others, believes that his country's unrest is being fuelled by the Islah, Yemen's highly organised and increasingly popular chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been clamoring for years for a share of power. By far the dominant force in Yemen's opposition coalition, the Islah would be favourites to lead any future transitional coalition government in Yemen. But many doubt whether Yemen's opposition, a motley bunch of Islamists, Socialists and Arab nationalists united only by their common enemy, will prove any more adept at running the country.

"If the opposition can't even agree between themselves in Tagheer Square how can you expect them to lead a government," says Omar Mohammed, the owner of cooking gas distribution chain and a former military captain. "They're a bunch of opportunists, many of whom have defected when it benefitted them the most."

Even if Saleh were inclined to resign, his General People's Congress would have to endorse the decision for it to take effect. Many in the party would oppose him going, and that could allow Saleh to repeat his antics of 2006 when he promised not to run for re-election only to later bow to the "popular pressure and appeals of the Yemeni people."

Despite weekly contest for the streets of Sana'a by hundreds of thousands of rival protestors, there remains a significant silent majority in Yemen too bogged down in day to day struggles to go out protesting. But with Yemen's economy entering a dangerous downward spiral, the politically uncommitted may be forced by economic desperation to take sides.

"We're nearing the stage where people's desperate conditions will drive them to desperate measures," says Jubran. "It's no longer a question of politics, it's question of survival."

"Even in their poverty, millions still back [Saleh]," says Nasser Araybee, a Yemeni journalist who writes for the Gulf based Al-Ahram Weekly. "But for most of them, now, it's a question of dignity — if Saleh can leave power in a respectable way the majority will accept it. If they sense he is being ousted by inferior forces they will stand by him until the very end."