by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 22 July 2005
In a move that is almost without precedent in an Arab country, Yemen’s long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Salih, has announced that he is ‘fed up’ and plans to retire next year.
He surprised a gathering on July 16 - called to celebrate the 27th anniversary of his rise to power - by saying he will not contest the presidential election scheduled for September next year.
"I hope that all political parties ... find young leaders to compete in the elections because we have to train ourselves in the practice of peaceful succession," he said. "Our country is rich with young blood who can lead the country ... let's transfer power peacefully among ourselves, people are fed up with us, and we are fed up with power."
The announcement came at the end of a speech to politicians, diplomats, government officials and tribal leaders in which he reviewed the problems and achievements of his presidency, including the unification of north and south Yemen, the introduction of a multi-party system and the settling of all the country’s border disputes.
In times of difficulty in the past, the president has talked of stepping down - usually in order to rally supporters to his side - and some in the audience dutifully responded with cries of "No, no, we want you, we want you for ever," but the president insisted he was serious this time.
Yemen should become a role model nd show the world it is ‘a democratic country where peaceful passing of power is done,’ he said.
Although his statement appeared to leave no room for a subsequent change of heart, some in the Yemeni opposition were sceptical.
"This is an early election campaign by the president because there are no signs that he wants to relinquish power. He still maintains a monopoly on power," Ali al-Sarari, a member of the Socialist Party, told the Associated Press news agency.
At 63, Salih is still relatively young by the standards of Arab leaders, and the motives behind his decision to step down are unclear.
The principle of limiting presidents to two terms has long been established by Yemen’s constitution, but occasional re-drafts of the constitution have kept returning the counter to zero. This means that Salih could legally seek a further seven-year term next year.
In Yemen’s first direct presidential election, in 1999, Salih won a 96.3% majority against a little-known opponent from his own party, the General People’s Congress.
As in several Arab countries, there has been frequent speculation that Salih is grooming his eldest son, Ahmad, to succeed him. The constitution requires presidential candidates to be at least 40 years old but Ahmad, who is currently in charge of the Republican Guard and the special forces, is still only about 35.