Yemen's president says he won't seek another term

Ahead of "day of rage," Saleh follows in Mubarak's footsteps tells parliament: "No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock."

Yemen protests 311 (photo credit: AP)
Yemen protests 311
(photo credit: AP)
The US-backed president of Yemen told parliament Wednesday he would not seek reelection or transfer power to his son, in an apparent reaction to protests in the impoverished nation that have been inspired by Tunisia’s revolt and the turmoil in Egypt.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for nearly 32 years, spoke to lawmakers in both houses of the assembly on the eve of mass rallies that the opposition has called for Thursday in all Yemeni provinces.
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“I won’t seek to extend my presidency for another term or have my son inherit it,” Saleh said.
The 64-year-old leader had tried to defuse simmering tensions in Yemen by raising salaries for the army and by denying opponents’ claims that he planned to install his son as his successor. But that hasn’t stopped critics of his rule from taking to the streets of the capital, Sanaa. In January, tens of thousands gathered for days of demonstrations, boldly calling for Saleh to step down – a red line that few dissenters had previously dared to cross.
Dr. Shaul Yanai, a lecturer on the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula at Hebrew University, told The Jerusalem Post that the identity of Saleh’s successor was by no means clear.
The ouster in Yemen, he said, should be viewed as separate from those in other Arab countries, as the country remains largely heterogeneous and tribebased, and divided sharply along geographic and religious lines. Thirty percent of Yemenis are Shi’ites, adherents of the relatively moderate Zaidi sect. Concentrated mainly in the country’s North, the Zaidis are themselves divided into 400 tribes.
Saleh’s current term in office expires in 2013, but proposed amendments to the constitution could let him remain in power for two additional terms of 10 years.
After the Tunisian revolt, which forced that country’s president to flee into exile, and the mass protests in Egypt calling for the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Saleh ordered income taxes slashed in half and instructed his government to control prices. He deployed anti-riot police and soldiers to several key areas in Sanaa and its surroundings.
But the street protests, led by opposition members and youth activists, continued, adding to the threats to Yemen’s stability.
In the parliament Wednesday, Saleh called upon the opposition to meet for a dialogue on political reforms and their demands.
Opposition spokesman Muhammad al-Sabri rejected the call for dialogue and expressed doubts about Saleh’s pledge not to seek reelection. Sabri said Saleh had made a similar promise in 2006, but then failed to fulfill it, running again and getting reelected.
“The calls for dialogue are not serious and are merely meant to be tranquilizers,” Sabri told AP. He added that the opposition parties would meet later Wednesday to prepare an official response to Saleh’s announcement.
Yemen is the Arab world’s most impoverished nation and has become a haven for al-Qaida operatives.
Saleh’s government is riddled with corruption, has little control outside the capital, and its main source of income – oil – could run dry in a decade.
Nearly half of Yemen’s population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day and doesn’t have access to proper sanitation, and less than a tenth of the roads are paved. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes by conflict, flooding the cities.
The country is enduring a rebellion in the North and a secessionist movement in the South.
Saleh’s ruling National Congress Party has 240 seats in the 301-member parliament. The opposition is a wide array of mainly leftist and Islamic parties – the most prominent being the Socialists, who governed South Yemen before the North and the South merged in 1990, and the influential Islamist Islah Party.
As in Egypt, where Mubarak’s son Gamal was believed to be preparing to succeed his father, Saleh’s son Ahmed – an army brigadier and head of the presidential guard and special forces – was also reported to have been groomed for succession.
In Jordan, meanwhile, many were questioning the wisdom of King Abdullah II in appointing Marouf al-Bakhit to head the country’s new government.
Labib Kamhawi, an independent Jordanian analyst, told the BBC on Tuesday that the move showed the king’s lack of intention “to initiate real substantial changes.”
Kamhawi said it was important for Abdullah to appoint a “new face in whom there is general trust,” because people have lost confidence in the old guard to tackle Jordan’s promised economic and political reforms.
“This is not regime change,” Marc Lynch, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, told the news website Politico.
“This is a defensive mechanism, and it’s the traditional defensive mechanism.”
Of the wider region, he said, “It is really clear that the leaders are flying scared.”
Jordan’s powerful Muslim opposition on Wednesday urged the country’s newly appointed prime minister to step down, calling him the wrong person to introduce democratic reforms and tackle surging poverty and unemployment.
On Tuesday, Abdullah sacked his government and named Bakhit as his prime minister-designate, bowing to public pressure from protests inspired by those in Egypt. He ordered Bakhit to move quickly to boost economic opportunities and give Jordanians a greater say in politics.
Hamza Mansour, a leader of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, rejected Bakhit’s nomination, saying he “is not the right person for the job.”
“Al-Bakhit is a security man, a former army general and ex-intelligence official. He doesn’t believe in democracy,” Mansour told The Associated Press.
Instead, he said the country needed “a national figure who can tackle Jordan’s serious economic and political crisis.”
Jordan is grappling with a soaring foreign debt estimated at $15 billion, an inflation rate that swelled by 1.5 percent to 6.1% in December, and high unemployment and poverty rates – set at 12% and 25% respectively.
Mansour also criticized Bakhit for signing off on Jordan’s first casino, which the Brotherhood strongly opposed on the grounds that it violated Islamic principles and encouraged vice. The project was later canceled.
Bakhit, 63, is a former ambassador to Israel who supports strong ties with the US and Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel – policies the Brotherhood and the left wing oppose. The fundamentalist Brotherhood advocates the introduction of strict Islamic Sharia law, close relations with Muslim nations and Israel’s destruction.
Many Jordanians see Bakhit as a tough enforcer of security, which goes against their calls for greater democratic freedoms. Bakhit is an ex-army majorgeneral who also served as the chief of Jordan’s National Security Agency in the last decade. He is credited with maintaining Jordan’s stability following the 2005 triple attacks on hotels in Amman, claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq.
At a small protest Wednesday near Bakhit’s office, left-wing activist Hadi Khitan said Bakhit was no different from deposed prime minister Samir Rifai.
“We want to change government policies, not change prime ministers,” he said. “We want a real political change, and this message should reach the king.”