Middle East

Yemen's President Reneges on Democracy

Al-Sabeen Square in Sana'a filled with "spontaneous" protesters Friday and Saturday calling on President Saleh to continue his reign. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

Last Thursday could have been a historic day. That was when President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen refused to accept his party's nomination for the presidency, declaring, "I am not a taxi to hire for a ride." It was a good line in a bad play.

Saleh had spent nearly a year indignantly insisting that his sincere intention was to relinquish power in the presidential elections scheduled for September. He had made the same pledge only to renege in the 1993 and 1998 elections. Late Saturday Saleh announced, to the surprise of no one, he would keep his old crown after all, and the palace and the purse and the other accouterments of his monarchy.

Al-Sabeen Square in Sana'a filled with "spontaneous" protesters Friday and Saturday calling on Saleh to continue his reign. Undoubtedly, some were there out of affection for President Saleh, an understandable attachment considering his extended reign. Others who joined in were worried about a future without him. Some in the oligarchy feared the loss of privilege. But the vast majority of demonstrators were, "Public employees in all ministries, government institutions, joint public companies and various branches of the public sector [who were] urged to join," according to the Yemen Mirror.

In Yemen, civil service, government and military employment is highly politicized. The ministries in Yemen closed to enable their workers to go spontaneously demonstrate for Saleh. Local reports indicated that the Ministry of Religious Affairs advised mosque preachers to promote the impending spontaneous protest.

The demonstrations were well organized with tents, free qat and soft drinks, a sound system and preprinted banners. The same spontaneous slogan was heard nationwide, "Finish the mission." In power since 1978, Saleh with another seven year term may be able to "complete the mission" in 35 years that he was unable to complete in 28. At that point Saleh's heir apparent, his son Ahmed, will be able to ascend the throne, assuming there is anything left of the country and the people can survive that long.

Yemen, with some smattering of oil and gas, has the "resource curse." Saleh's regime, like various other petty dictatorships dependent on oil sales, has become increasingly autocratic, corrupt, dysfunctional, and cold-hearted with each passing year. Oil reserves are expected to deplete rapidly within the next 10 years, exacerbating an already substantial economic and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Continuing water depletion is another grave concern impacting both health and stability.

The last time there were wide spread public demonstrations in Yemen was in July 2005 when thousands of citizens across the impoverished nation took to the streets to plead with Saleh to reinstate oil subsidies. There were no free soft drinks then as Saleh unleashed tanks, guns, and soldiers against the protestors. Dozens of Yemenis were killed, hundreds injured, and hundreds arrested including young children. Journalists were beaten and arrested, a common occurrence in Yemen.

Renouncing his latest renunciation of the presidency, President Saleh said Saturday he was responding to "the tears shed by the elderly, mothers, and children." Yemen, with high military spending and low healthcare spending, has among the highest rates globally of maternal and child mortality. Yemeni mothers and children have been shedding tears for years with little comfort from Saleh.

The Yemeni opposition meanwhile has agreed that the decentralization of political power is a required precursor for urgently needed economic reform. North and South Yemen were one party states prior to unification in 1990. The democratic system was a byproduct of compromises necessary for unity. Through fifteen years, Saleh's ruling party, the General People's Congress (G.P.C.), established and strengthened its hegemony over the political system, economy, state bureaucracies, the media and its former rivals, eventually becoming a monstrous entity thriving on corruption, intimidation, bribery and deception. Those within the G.P.C. with a conscience, courage and patriotism, and there are many, face a daily battle within the belly of the beast.

The constitutional provision of the winner-take-all system has been another factor in this trend toward a one party state. In 1993, with 29 percent of the vote, the G.P.C. won 41 percent of the 301 parliamentary seats. In the 2003 Parliamentary election that was rife with electoral improprieties, the G.P.C. won 58 percent of votes and obtained 76 percent (229) of the seats. This G.P.C. dominated parliament has passed budgets that have had a devastating impact on the Yemeni people, and they joked.

On Thursday, the G.P.C. leadership expressed sheer panic at the prospect of losing Saleh as their figurehead and being forced to articulate an ideology. The inability to produce an alternate candidate in a democratic manner raised the ugly specter of Saleh's relatives fighting it out to become the next nominee The G.P.C. executive council threatened to resign rather than face the constituency it had so long taken for granted, stolen from and lied to. With Saleh's announcement Saturday, their fears were assuaged and their futures look bright.

The Yemeni opposition, known collectively as the Joint Meeting Parties (J.M.P.), is in some ways typical for the region, containing Islamists, reformists, Ba'athists, Socialists, and pan-Arab Nasserites. Some of these parties are not internally democratic. Leadership, platforms, and policies have often been presented to the membership as a fait accompli. Until recently, many opposition parties confined themselves to criticism and were ineffectual mechanisms of enfranchisement and opposition.

Yet facing a dire economic reality, the Yemeni opposition is atypical in that they have unified (less the Ba'athists) in an effort to save the state from looming disaster. This melding together in a unity of purpose despite disparate ideologies and affiliations, whereby patriotism transcends agenda, is a positive development regionally. The J.M.P. has agreed on a single principle, equal rights for all citizens without exception or exclusion. This agreement forms the basis of the J.M.P.'s comprehensive reform platform. It is a courageous stand considering the regime's habit of attacking, threatening, kidnapping, and arresting those who call for reform or stand against corruption.

The J.M.P. has stated they will endorse a single candidate in the upcoming elections, provided the substantially fraudulent voter rolls can be corrected and state institutions can be neutralized including the media, budget, military and employment. The deployment of state resources in support of Saleh over the weekend does not bode well for the fall elections.

In an autocratic regime, the best one can hope for is a benevolent and efficient dictatorship. In a democracy, the ordinary citizen is the center of all attention: the media is his eyes, the party is his voice, and governmental institutions are his hands. In Yemen's raging battle for democracy, Yemeni non-governmental journalists are heroically trying to do their part to inform Yemen's citizens, and it's equally important that the political parties do their best to give ordinary citizens a voice.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst.