The Yemeni capital city of Sanaa was filled with protesters on Thursday, emulating the calls in Tunisia and Egypt for longtime autocratic presidents to step down. President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has already fled his country, after a final statement which told the protesters, “I understand you.” A leader of the Yemeni protest movement said he wants to hear the same words from President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose reign clocks in at 32 years and counting.
There has been unrest in Yemen for a long time, but these are the first mass protests openly calling for the President’s ouster. The government detained Tawakel Karman, a popular political activist, over the weekend, but released her after the protesters began carrying pictures of her around the capital. That seems like a good indication of the growing strength of the movement.
Yemen is the Arab world’s most impoverished nation, with a standard of living described by the Associated Press as follows: “Nearly half of Yemen’s population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day and doesn’t have access to proper sanitation. Less than a tenth of the roads are paved. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes by conflict, flooding the cities.” Major exports include oil (which is running out), exploding UPS packages, and Anwar al-Awlaki. The latter is thought to be a major player in the protest movement, which is not a good sign.
President Saleh has reportedly tried to shore up support for his weak and corrupt government by raising the salaries of the army, lowering income tax rates, and implementing government price controls. No word on whether he’s tried proposing a high-speed rail system yet.
Interestingly, the Yemeni protesters were angry at the notion of Saleh installing his son as a successor, and he’s tried to calm them down by promising not to do so. The Egyptian protesters are angry about the same thing. According to some reports on Arabic-language websites, longtime President Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal may have already fled the country, although these reports have been disputed by other sources. It looks like dynastic succession might be one of the tipping points for resistance to autocratic rule. Pity it didn’t work out that way in North Korea.
Speaking of Egypt, things are looking increasingly tense there. Friday is a national holiday, and new mass protests are being planned. The protesters remain defiant in the face of a police crackdown, which in Egypt involves physically cracking heads. One injured demonstrator told the Christian Science Monitor “I came out again today to say we want freedom for our country. I will come tomorrow. If it takes a year, I will stay for a year. We will die in the streets if we have to.” Continued unrest has begun depressing the Egyptian stock market.
Egypt’s president Mubarak has been silent during the protests thus far, but his political party is holding a press conference this morning to address the unrest. Popular opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei is on his way home to Egypt from Vienna, and told the Reuters news service he would participate in the Friday protests. The sinister Muslim Brotherhood has been pointedly keeping a low profile, calling for peaceful protest but otherwise lying low – a smart tactic, since the government would love to pin sole responsibility for the protests on it. They won’t stay quiet if the current government topples, and Yemen’s autocratic President will not likely be replaced by leadership more agreeable to American interests. The Middle East is a place where the “reformers” can be a lot worse than the dictators they replace.