Yemeni protesters target Salih

The Tunisia effect continues with a Reuters headline, "Protests erupt in Yemen", reporting that thousands took to the streets in the central city of Ta'izz yesterday.

This followed two nights of rioting by secessionist supporters in the southern city of Aden on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Since the overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, students and opposition activists have also held five protests in the capital, Sana'a, meeting a heavy-handed response from security forces.

Unlike Tunisia, though, such disturbances are nothing unusual in Yemen – probably no more than about four on the Richter scale in terms of the threat they pose to the regime.

"Of course it's hard to know what will happen in the coming days," Yemeni analyst Abdulrahman Salam told Reuters, "but the situation here is different because allegiances here lie first with tribes, clans or even families." These divisions, along with calls for secession in the south, make it very difficult to build a united front against President Salih, who has been in power in Sana'a since 1978.

Nevertheless, the opposition discourse seems to be focusing increasingly on Salih's presidency. The student protesters at Sana'a University, for example, held up signs saying: "Leave before you are forced to leave".

To some extent, Salih has brought this upon himself by proposing constitutional changes which would end the presidential two-term limit. 

"We want constitutional amendments but we want amendments that don't lead to the continuance of the ruler and the inheritance of power to his children," Mohammed al-Sabry, head of the opposition coalition said in remarks quoted by Reuters. "We won't permit these corrupt leaders to stay in power and we are ready to sleep in the streets for our country's sake, in order to liberate it from the hands of the corrupt."

Without a constitutional amendment, Salih will be legally required to step down in 2013 – something which he is obviously trying to avoid. Before the events in Tunisia, it seemed likely that he would succeed in clinging on but now the balance of probability may be shifting in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the Yemen Observer reports more Gaddafi-like antics from the self-appointed "southern leader", Tariq al-Fadhli (of Fadli). In the courtyard of his home in Zinjibar on Wednesday, the aristocratic ex-jihadhist burned an American flag, a Yemeni flag, a flag of the former South Yemen and a green separatist flag, together with pictures of President Salih and three of the south's former Marxist leaders. He clearly has a lot to protest about.

In what the Yemen Observer describes as a strongly-worded speech, Fadli said: "To America and to the unjust, and to the dinosaurs: al-Majalah was destroyed with a cruise missile worth 600,000 US dollars. If this money was spent to develop the area, we would have had a wonderful town where not even a terrorist housefly would dare to enter." (In Fadli-speak, "the unjust" is code for Salih and "dinosaurs" is code for the Marxists.)

Wednesday's flag-burning was in odd contrast to another ceremony in Fadli's courtyard last February, when he hoisted an American flag and saluted it while a recording of The Star-Spangled Banner was played.

Note: The Reuters report quoted above describes Ta'izz as a "southern city". Though it lies south of Sana'a, it was not part of the southern state that merged with the north in 1990.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 Jan 2011