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Overturning Yemen regime à la Egypt a long shot

A Yemeni protester holds a wooden cutout that, in Arabic, reads in 'Leave.' It was hoisted during a massive anti-regime rally in the capital Sanaa on March 1, 2011.


In the battle over Yemen's future, those challenging President Ali Abdullah Saleh definitely have an edge in numbers over those supporting him. But even with the growing support of tribal leaders and opposition parties, it's still a long shot that Yemen's protesters can pull off an Egyptian or Tunisian-style victory.

Tens of thousands of protesters turned out Tuesday in Sanaa, as well as in the large southern city of Taiz and other centres across the country. Boosted by supporters of several opposition parties who joined the protest, organizers said it was the largest national turnout in more than a month of protests.

In Sanaa, the colourful, tough-talking imam Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani joined the protesters for the first time and led them in midday prayers.

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"An Islamic state is coming," he told the crowd, drawing cries of Allahu akbar from some. It was the most overtly Islamic moment of the protest movement and, likely, a sign of things to come.

Sheik al-Zindani, who is wanted in the United States for alleged connections to al-Qaeda, said he hailed "the peaceful revolution of the youths and their legitimate demands and rights." He told them to "go on until you achieve your demands."

Interestingly, just two weeks ago, the imam had backed the idea of Mr. Saleh staying in power until his term ends in 2013.

He explained: "There is no legitimacy to a ruler whose people do not want him."

Pro-Saleh forces could only muster 3,000 to 5,000 demonstrators, albeit loud and persistent ones, in a march that tied up traffic in the capital's downtown.

Their leader, Mr. Saleh, had earlier in the day shocked a lot of people when he said in a speech that the United States and Israel are behind the uprising in Yemen.

"I am going to reveal a secret," Mr. Saleh told an audience of 500 at Sanaa University. "There is an operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world," and it is "run by the White House."

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Mr. Saleh accused U.S. President Barack Obama of meddling in the affairs of Arab countries. "Why is he interfering? Is he the President of the United States or the president of the world?" he asked.

The remarks by Mr. Saleh, whose military expenses are heavily supported by Washington, drew a terse response. "President Saleh knows better," Philip Crowley, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, commented on Twitter. "His people deserve a better response."

But despite the growing numbers of protesters, and Mr. Saleh's foolhardy remarks, the recipe for a successful revolution still lacks a few ingredients.

"I don't believe people power alone can do it," political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani said.

The big difference between Yemen's popular uprising and those in Egypt and Tunisia is that while the North African protesters succeeded in discrediting their presidents, ultimately it was the army, trusted by the people in both countries, that showed the presidents the door.

No such trusted force exists in Yemen. Most of the armed forces are under the command of various members of the Saleh family. "There isn't really an institution called the military here," Mr. al-Iryani said. "What we have are tribal factions in uniform."

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Which is why civil war is such a possibility: If the protesters alone can't force Mr. Saleh to step down, and the leadership of the armed forces won't, then the political opposition will likely try to pry away units of the military to fight for it.

The powerful combination of the Islah Party and Hashid tribal federation probably could persuade several units to join it in a battle to unseat Mr. Saleh.

"I expect the next president will enter [office]on the back of a tank," Mr. al-Iryani said.

Protest spokesman Adel as-Surabi was far from excited about the increased numbers Tuesday. He fears that the Islamic content brought in by their new ally the Islah Party, could prove to be the kiss of death for the movement.

"Our people don't want an Islamic state or a predominantly Islamic protest movement," he said.

Sentiments such as those expressed Tuesday by Sheik al-Zindani may well turn off local and international supporters.

But even if it ended now "the Yemen revolution already has succeeded," Mr. al-Iryani said. "The wall of fear has been breached," referring to the politics of tyranny employed in Yemen and in many other countries.

"Yemen won't go back to that again."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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