As pro-democracy protests reverberate around the Arab world, the latest political shake-up is in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced today he would not seek reelection or transfer power to his son when his term expires in 2013.
“No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock,” Saleh said in a speech to Parliament. “I present these concessions in the interests of the country. The interests of the country come before our personal interests. I call on the opposition to freeze all planned protests, rallies, and sit-ins.”
In peaceful protests starting last week, tens of thousands of demonstrators in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a have been calling for the end of Saleh’s three decades of power and a change in government. On Monday, the protests spread to Yemen’s rural, mountainous regions. Saleh’s announcement comes a day before a planned “Day of Rage” calling for his ouster.
Saleh is another U.S.-backed strongman to cave to the pressures of the pro-democracy protests sweeping the region. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced on Tuesday night to jeering crowds that he would not seek another term and allow for free and fair elections in September. Also on Tuesday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his government and appointed a new prime minister to enact immediate political reforms. Of course, the wave began in Tunisia, when weeks of angry street protests over economic hardships and corruption drove longtime Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile.
Over the last week of protests, Saleh said he would expand the social-security network of the country, promised to instate a special fund for university graduates to create jobs, and increased salaries for government and military employees in an effort to maintain stability.
Despite his latest announcement, protesters are still calling for Thursday’s angry protests to continue as planned.
Yemen is embroiled in a fight against active al-Qaida militants in its country, and the Obama administration has sharply escalated its military and financial assistance to the country.
Saleh was among those hardest hit by the latest dump of WikiLeaks diplomatic cables.
One surfaced U.S. diplomatic cable detailed a meeting last January between Saleh and U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus in which Saleh offered to cover up what were allegedly U.S. drone strikes combating militants in Yemen. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh told Petraeus in a cable prepared by a U.S. diplomat.
They also discussed a U.S. offer of military aid and training by U.S. special operations forces -- and the Yemeni counteroffers.
The diplomat’s report of the meeting was, of course, a secret so as not to stir up a backlash by Yemeni citizens who harbor widespread anti-American sentiment. Now that the cable's been released, Yemen’s Foreign Ministry has denied that it is accurate.
The Yemen-based terrorist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for sending package bombs to Jewish sites in Chicago in October and for the plot to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger jet last Christmas, has been a major concern to U.S. officials.
As with Egypt, the United States will soon face a choice about whether to continue supporting Saleh in the face of widespread calls for his resignation.