Hard on the heels of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s announcement that he will not seek re-election in September, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has announced he will also make his current term of office his last. The next presidential election in Yemen takes place in 2013.
In another similarity to Mubarak, Saleh is said to have been grooming his son Ahmed to take over as his successor. His announcement today didn’t mention any future plans for Ahmed, but the Egyptian people didn’t seem too thrilled by the prospect of Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal taking over from the old man.
Yemen’s already shaky government has been threatening to go down like the Superdome roof in a blizzard, ever since the Tunisian uprising and the resignation of its President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The local Islamist movement drinks straight al-Qaeda with a Muslim Brotherhood chaser. President Saleh has been acting as a check against Islamist ambitions, but his country is the poorest in the Middle East. Protesters have been complaining about poverty, high unemployment, and political corruption. Last week, the Washington Post ran a story on Yemeni civil unrest that mentioned protesters carrying a sign that read, “Our stomachs ache. There is no bread.”
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, President Mubarak’s promise to step down when his current term ends doesn’t seem to have dispelled the protests. The White House has moved from vague language about “orderly transitions” and “respect for democracy,” to “nudging” Mubarak into announcing he wouldn’t run for re-election, to bluntly informing the embattled Egyptian president that “an orderly transition can’t be prolonged – it must begin now,” according to an ABC News report. By this afternoon, Obama will be spamming Mubarak’s in-box with Expedia quotes for flights from Cairo to Jeddah.
However, on the streets of Cairo, the cavalry has arrived for Mubarak – literally. “Mubarak supporters were out on the streets for the first time Wednesday in large numbers, with thousands demanding an end to the anti-government movement a day after the President went on national television and rejected demands for him to step down,” the Associated Press reports. The UK Telegraph says some of those supporters are “riding horses and camels and wielding whips.” Violence has already erupted between the pro- and anti-Mubarak forces.
The widely respected Egyptian military has also come to Mubarak’s aid, declaring itself satisfied with Mubarak’s decision to step down at the end of his term, and calling on protesters to disperse. I speculated the other day that Mubarak’s survival in office, at least until September, would become a contest of endurance between himself and the protesters. The military’s call for an end to demonstrations, coupled with the rather well-timed flood of Mubarak supporters galloping onto the streets, is part of his bid to end the game. It remains to be seen if it’s checkmate.
At this point, Mubarak hanging on until the end of his term would be one of the better outcomes for U.S. foreign policy, assuming the protesters disperse without a massive state crackdown. An orderly transition would give Egypt a better chance of resisting Islamist takeover than bringing the government down in flames this week. It’s not clear what the Obama Administration hopes to gain by pressuring him any further.