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Yemen on the Brink

In recent weeks, Yemen’s opposition has stepped up its efforts to remove President Saleh from power, dismissing his promises to leave by the end of the year or to handle power only to “safe hands.” The Yemenis have been tricked before by this master of survival. And they don’t want a repeat performance. But the United States and Saudi Arabia, key supporters of Saleh’s regime, are worried over who could succeed their ally.

Among those leading the opposition is Mrs. Tawakul Karman who, since 2007, has been leading demonstrations every Tuesday against the government and its dictatorial ways. As president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains, she has been a consistent critic of President Saleh’s government. And she has paid dearly for it, since she has been arrested several times, leaving the care of her children to her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi.

Since 2007 Mrs. Tawakul Karman has been leading demonstrations every Tuesday against the government and its dictatorial ways. In addition, she has been a tireless promoter of women’s rights and freedom, going as far as to advocate taking off the veil, a delicate proposition in traditional Yemenite society. She, and her organization, considers that state terrorism and violence clash with international rights and treaties, which Yemen’s government has promised to respect. According to Mrs. Karman, the popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt have given the Yemeni opposition additional energy and strength.

In the meantime, important allies are leaving the president’s side. The most important defection so far is that of Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, considered the second most powerful person in Yemen. He is the commander of the northwest military zone and the most senior military officer to join the protests. His move was followed by that of several military officers, tribal leaders, and ruling party members.

Abdullah Alsaidi, Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations has also resigned, in protest against the killing of dozens of demonstrators. Some observers believe that Saudi Arabia, which until now has backed Yemen’s government, wouldn’t continue to do so if the situation worsens.

President Saleh is facing challenges on several fronts. An unrelenting war against rebels of the Houthi tribe in the north has forced 350,000 people from their homes, most of them children, and created a humanitarian emergency. At the same time, Saleh is facing a secessionist movement in the south that threatens to deprive the government of much needed resources.

The south has most of the resources and only a third of the country’s population of 24 million. If they secede, a course of action that they tried to follow in 1990, they will create an extremely serious situation for the rest of the country. A later attempt at secession in 1994 was unsuccessful. However, a new secessionist movement emerged in 2007 as a response to what Southerners believe is northern domination of resources, as well as better access to jobs and housing.

In addition, Yemen is also running fast out of water. According to the German Development Service (GDS) 46 percent of Yemen’s rural population has easy access to an adequate water supply, and this number is only slightly better in Yemen’s main cities. According to some estimates, the wells of the capital city, Sana’a, will run dry by 2015, if current water-usage levels continue. The water crisis has become more acute due to the country’s population growth, which has almost tripled since 1975. Oil reserves are estimated to be drastically reduced by 2017.

Poverty and lack of resources have had a deleterious effect on people’s health. According to World Food Programme (WFP) estimates 7.2 million people, almost a third of the country’s population, are suffering from chronic hunger, and over 50 percent of children are malnourished. Families in Yemen are spending approximately 30 percent of their monthly income on bread alone.

Infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates continue to be high throughout the country. Maternal health and health care indicators compare unfavorably with those of other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region. The population growth rate is faster than the creation of new health facilities, while the expansion rate of educational facilities just keeps up with population growth.

There is an eerie similarity between Yemen today and Egypt just before former President Hosni Mubarak fell from power. Just as President Mubarak was desperately clinging to power then, so President Saleh is doing now, promising deeds that won’t placate the protesters.

While refusing to step down, he said that the country without him would be at grave risk of breaking apart. Yemen’s tragedy is that either with him or without him the situation will probably become worse. As Mrs. Tawakul Karman, President Saleh’s nemesis stated, “This is not just a political revolution, it is a social revolution.”

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César Chelala

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a
winner of several journalism awards.

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