Leading article: Yemen's autocrat who has played on Western fears to cling to power

Saleh need have no approval over his successor. After 32 years in power his exit is overdue

Share
Related Topics

After Presidents Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia, could it be the turn of Ali Abdullah Saleh to be forced out of office by popular unrest? Yesterday, the Yemeni president made a Mubarak-like promise to stand down – but not just yet. The regime has been a key ally of the West in the counter-terrorist struggle against al-Qa'ida; a slide into civil war, which is what Saleh is warning would follow his departure, would be a cause for alarm in Washington and other Western capitals. Yet, after 32 years in power, President Saleh's exit is surely overdue.

For seven weeks, his country has been in the grip of anti-government protests. The situation reached a crisis after a bloody assault by government henchmen killed more than 50 democracy protesters after prayers last Friday. Scores of high-ranking government officials, including five top military leaders, have defected. Among them are the president's half-brother and Yemen's envoy to the Arab League. President Saleh has reluctantly promised to stand down, but not until after parliamentary elections next year.

Dogged by poverty, tribalism and central government dysfunction – Yemen has been the base from which al-Qa'ida launched attacks against targets in the US and Saudi Arabia. The groups known as AQAP (al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula) are regarded by Washington as a graver threat even than Osama bin Laden's affiliates on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Yemen was the source of failed plots to place bombs on board US airliners in 2009 and 2010 and a Yemen-based cleric has been held responsible for instigating the shooting rampage at Fort Hood in November 2009.

Yemen is the Arab world's poorest country. Its little oil and natural gas is running out, as is water in the north of the country. Many areas have no access to electricity. It is poorly developed, with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment at 35 per cent, and higher for young people. As a society it is violent, poor and tribal: its north has Sunnis and Zaidi Shiites; the middle has a mix of Sufis and hardline Salafis; the south has a separatist movement around the southern port city of Aden. President Saleh has for three decades attempted to manage all this by balancing tribal rivalries rather than through development, state-building or national unity.

But Washington's classic regional ambivalence over the choice between stability and democracy appears to have reached a tipping point after the massacre of protesters. Saleh, who has received millions in US aid for his co-operation in the fight against Islamic militants, is on the point of being abandoned. The Yemeni president has remained defiant, insisting that he cannot stand down without knowing who will replace him, which is why he says he won't go until after elections. The problem is that Saleh has tried such ruses before. Last week he offered a new constitution giving more powers to parliament, and announced an array of handouts. But few Yemenis believe he will deliver.

He need have no approval over who will succeed him. It is true that the struggle of competing visions for the future of Yemen will not end when Saleh leaves. But there is a greater risk of this strategically key country, which borders the world's biggest oil exporter and several major shipping routes, slipping into chaos if Saleh does not go soon and a bloody conflict ensues. That could even see the country split into separate zones along tribal, military or regional lines. A failed state looms.

The genuine participation by all sides in an open and transparent process that addresses the concerns of the Yemeni people is now required. Al-Qa'ida has thrived in Yemen in opposition to the US-backed autocracy. Here, as in other parts of the Arab world, democracy is the best antidote to al-Qa'ida.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Beware of the jovial buffoon who picks fights overseas

Boyd Tonkin
 

My shameful failure to live up to the spirit of Christmas

Howard Jacobson
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all