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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Yemen’s president says he won’t seek reelection, but he said that in 2005, too

A poster showing Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh sits on top of a fruit stand in Sanaa, Yemen on Nov. 18, 2010. Photo: AP/Muhammed Muheisen

After days of protests in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh stated that he would not seek reelection when his term ends in 2013. It seemed like a stunning pronouncement, part of a chain of autocrats brought low by protests in the street — first in Tunisia, then Egypt and now on the Arabian peninsula.

Reality, however, is more than what happened in the last month. While some protesters in Sanaa have said they were inspired by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, those two revolts did not inspire the protests anymore than my breakfast burrito did. There were protests in Aden during the Gulf Cup soccer tournament last November, protests over the parcel bombs in Sanaa in October, thousands of people protesting over the most recent round of fighting between the government and the Houthi rebels in the north in March. Yemenis protest routinely, and the last several months have seen a series of increasingly violent rallies across the entire country.

And in Yemen, there is a very regular pattern to protests, opposition and Saleh playing the crowds to stay in charge. In 2005, Saleh announced his intention not to seek reelection, only to stay on the ballot and win. Ever since, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an alliance of opposition groups, has sought to reform Yemen’s electoral law. Saleh, and the party he leads, the General People’s Congress (GPC), has refused to do so, and the two groups remain deadlocked in negotiations.

While some protesters in Sanaa have said they were inspired by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, those two revolts did not inspire the protests anymore than my breakfast burrito did.
But unlike other 30-year rulers of Middle Eastern countries, Saleh doesn’t have to steal elections. The National Democratic Institute, which has been working to improve and solidify Yemen’s political institutions for more than a decade, praised the 2006 presidential election as the country’s first competitive one. The JMP fielded a credible candidate for president, and the voting went without substantial fraud or incident.

Yemen, then, has a fairly robust, dynamic political system. This gets played out in the country’s many rebellions: every major political force in the country maintains ties to every other, including the Houthis in the north, the various southern opposition movements and even al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

AQAP clouds all thinking on Yemen, and understandably so: The U.S. has famously flagged one AQAP member, a U.S. citizen named Anwar al-Aulaqi, for capture or death. AQAP has mailed letter bombs to the U.S. and is widely blamed for inspiring, somehow, Islamist militants here. Army Major Nidal Hassan, who murdered 13 people at Ft. Hood last year, reportedly sought Aulaqi’s blessing before he went on his rampage. AQAP is also why the U.S. continues to increase its military subsidies to Yemen, which now approach nearly $250 million per year, in an effort to combat the terror group.

Viewing Yemen solely through the lens of its conflicts, however, misses the bigger picture, just as viewing Yemeni politics through the lens of President Saleh obscures important components of its makeup and behavior. By viewing Yemen only in terms of the Zaydis chafing under Saleh, or some groups in the south agitating for independence, or AQAP setting off bombs at checkpoints and funerals, we miss the reasons behind those conflicts: a huge youth bulge, pervasive unemployment, water shortages, economic stagnation and political marginalization. Similarly, many in the U.S. describe Saleh as “beleaguered,” and “nondemocratic,” as if either term really explains the dynamism and vigor of either the opposition movements or the wrangling within Saleh’s own inner circle.

Partly, this is because the vast majority of insight from Yemen comes by way of urban, educated elites — in most analysis of Yemen’s issues the countryside, where the vast majority of people live, is a relative mystery. But even elite opinion is insufficient: The latest round of protests probably had a number of causes behind them, one of which may have been the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt. At the same time, and quite unlike the protesters in Tunis and Cairo, Yemenis aren’t demanding revolution, but rather reform and peaceful transition of power. It is a totally different animal.

Part of Saleh’s announcement declining reelection was a slight postponement of April’s parliamentary election until voter records can be compiled — a concession the JMP has been demanding as a condition for their participation. That, more than Saleh’s announcement about his noncandidacy, is probably the most important news to come out of Yemen this week. It gives hope to the prospect of eventually reforming the electoral process enough to keep the opposition involved — and that means there just might be a fair vote for Parliament this spring or summer. It’s not quite a revolution, but it is most definitely a positive change.