Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he would not seek another term, stepping down after the next presidential election in 2013. Saleh, worried about the spread of the Egyptian unrest, is going on the defensive, attempting to placate the opposition to avoid a crisis, but his conciliatory gesture is likely to only embolden opposition groups in the country.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced Feb. 2 that he would not seek another term in 2013 and would replace draft constitutional amendments currently in the parliament with electoral reforms to allow for more political representation by the opposition. One of these now-frozen amendments would have abolished presidential term limits. This amendment had fueled speculation that Saleh would hand the presidency to his eldest son, Ahmed Saleh, who currently commands the Republican Guard, the elite military force that serves as the president's first line of defense. Saleh's announcement comes a day after a similar statement from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak amid unprecedented protests in his country. The Yemeni leader also said he would "make concessions one after the other for the sake of this nation," highlighting the extent to which the Yemeni government is worried about the spread of regional unrest. Saleh, much like Jordanian King Abdullah II, is making a pre-emptive move to avoid a crisis in the streets that could topple him from power after ruling for more than three decades. Even before the crisis erupted in Egypt, Saleh was making overtures to the opposition, calculating that he still had the internal regime strength to contain it. Now, Saleh appears to be on the defensive, a perception that the opposition will likely be prepared to exploit. On Feb. 3, a "million-man" march is scheduled to take place in Sanaa. It remains unclear how many will actually turn out for the protest, but a heavy security presence is expected, and talks have been taking place between the regime and the opposition leaders behind the scenes to seek assurances that the protests will not lead to looting and riots in the streets. Areas for protesters to congregate have also been pre-arranged with the security forces. Despite these preparations, there is always the potential for the protests to turn violent. Yemen already has a democratic political system, and elections in the country have been far freer and fairer than in Egypt, though they have still been dominated by Saleh's General People's Congress. The opposition now sees an opportunity to force a political opening, which would raise complications not only for Saleh and his allies but also for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the country. Yemen's Islamist dynamic is much more complex than that of Egypt. The Islamist landscape in Yemen includes the Islah Party (the Yemeni version of the Muslim Brotherhood), Salafists, jihadists and various other groups, some of which work directly with the regime. The country's military, domestic law enforcement agencies and intelligence service are also known to be penetrated by jihadist sympathizers to varying degrees, exacerbating the security situation in the country. A defensive, weak Saleh regime runs the risk of emboldening those already gnawing away at the state, such as the al-Houthi rebels in the north, local al Qaeda node al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and southern separatists. Saleh's survival between now and 2013 rests on his ability to maintain loyalty from the army and the tribes. The regime takes great care to placate principal tribal leaders and army elite, but the threat of a coup remains. The contingency plan if Saleh were to be deposed is for Vice President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi to take his place and manage the transition. Hadi, as one of the main managers of the regime, has the benefit of already having dealt regularly with the opposition forces. For now, Saleh appears to have the loyalty of the Republican Guard. He wants to avoid a situation in which the armed forces conclude that the Saleh name has become too great a liability, much like the Mubarak name has become in Egypt. In making this pre-emptive move, Saleh is giving himself two years in hopes of riding this crisis out. But much can happen within two years.