By Peter Hogarth
After 33 years in power, 10 months of protests and fighting between rival factions of the Yemen elite have forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Thousands celebrated when Saleh signed a deal on November 23 to relinquish his power.
The deal was signed with opposition leaders in the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at a ceremony hosted in the royal palace by Saudi King Abdullah. The deal states that Saleh will immediately hand over power to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, while Saleh will keep the title of president until new presidential elections. A new government will be formed with Hadi and the opposition, with elections called in the next three months.
However, as we have seen in Egypt, elections and small concessions such as these do not address the real concerns of the thousands of Yemenis calling for change. While opposition forces supported the protest movements that were inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, their interests are very different from those of the angry, impoverished protestors who took the streets 10 months ago. Members of the opposition, including the Islamist party Islah and defected army General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar come from some of the most powerful families in Yemen and had taken part in the Saleh government before throwing their weight behind the opposition to his regime.
Not surprisingly, the US and European Union hailed the accord as an important step forward for the democratic aspirations of the people of Yemen. US President Barack Obama took the opportunity to commend the graceful abdicating of power and confirmed that the US and Pentagon would work with Yemen to stamp out militants and terrorists in the country. Saudia Arabia and the US lauding praise on the regime change in Yemen does not bode well for ordinary people on the ground in Yemen.
The US and Saudi Arabia are looking for an arrangement in which they can retain their interests and influence. Saleh had the backing of the US as an ally since the September 11 attacks and supported the invasion of Iraq. Saleh even colluded with the US in a series of assassinations and bombings within Yemen as a part of the “war on terror.”
As Saudi Arabia has shown in Bahrain, it will not hesitate to step in to crush resistance in neighbouring countries if its power is threatened. As recently as 2009, Saudi forces launched heavy air strikes on rebels in northern Yemen and supported Yemen military operations to crush the Shi’ite Houthis group.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia, the ruling elite of Yemen and their cooperation in military repression is still a very real concern. US and Saudi endorsement of the Saleh step-down does not mean that the two regimes have done an about-face and thrown their lot in with the youth-led struggle for democracy in Yemen. Rather, it is an attempt to deflect the revolutionary wave sweeping the Arab World and placate the people of Yemen by leaving essentially the old order intact, minus Saleh. Yemen’s elite security forces are still led by Saleh’s son, nephews and brothers, and the possibility of violent suppression of protests still remains.
So while Yemenis celebrated the ousting of Saleh, the protestors who have faced 10 months of blood-stained repression acknowledge that this is just a start. The youth-led forces shouting for democracy in the streets, have been excluded from the opposition and recognize that Saleh was just one piece of the repressive regime. As in Egypt, the revolution will have to continue to oust the mini-Salehs to make the change they demand.