At least one person was killed and several wounded today when a landmine exploded during a demonstration in the town of Lodar, a bastion of anti-government and secessionist sentiment in the southern province of Abyan.
The blast came hours after Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh reaffirmed several reform pledges and ordered state security forces to protect anti-government protesters, raising speculation that agent provocateurs were behind the attack.
A government of national unity and an end to violent protests would create a more conducive atmosphere for national dialogue and for free and fair parliamentary elections, Saleh told Les Campbell of the National Democratic Institute.
During a meeting with NDI’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, the beleaguered president also reiterated his commitment to peaceful freedom of expression and pledged that he would not run for re-election in 2013, arrange a hereditary succession or seek to extend his term of office.
The president has a precious opportunity to be the first Arab leader to engineer a peaceful transfer of power, Campbell reportedly said after meeting with representatives of the Joint Meeting Parties opposition coalition, the ruling General People’s Congress and several tribal leaders.
The proposed compromise came as the anti-government protests appeared to be losing momentum.
A large anti-government mobilization is expected on Friday, but the size and militancy of the protests have varied widely across the country, observers suggest.
“We hear about greater numbers and more intensity in the governorates of Taiz and Aden,” says Heather Therrien, NDI’s resident director in Yemen, while “protesters in the capital are struggling to gain traction.”
While the number of demonstrators swelled to 4,000 in Sana’a this week, she says, “this is largely due to an influx of tribal elements and youth traveling from other governorates as opposed to every-day citizens of the capital taking notice and feeling compelled to take part.”
Several leading members of the GPC resigned in protest at Saleh’s intransigence this week, but it still has 240 members in the 301-seat parliament.
After 32 years in power, he has resolutely refused to stand down, claiming that his removal would provoke civil war and secession. Protesters in the south have called for independence from the north.
Yemen was unified in 1990 following a deal between the GPC and the Yemeni Socialist Party. But the pact soon fractured, leading to a civil war in 1994.
Saleh recently compared the anti-government protests to a contagious virus.
“This is a virus and is not part of our heritage or the culture of the Yemeni people,” he said. “It’s a virus that came from Tunisia to Egypt. And to some regions, the scent of the fever is like influenza. As soon as you sit with someone who is infected, you’ll be infected.”
Saleh has been able to withstand the pressure to resign because of divisions within and among opposition parties; disagreements between the parties and the disparate protest movement; and the continued allegiance of key tribal leaders.
At the moment the parliamentary opposition parties are divided and indecisive. Requests for talks with the ruling party have been accepted and then rejected a number of times in recent weeks. The different factions within the opposition coalition cannot agree on their demands.
The JMP coalition has expressed solidarity with the protests, in which individual members of all parties are involved, but the largest opposition group, Islah, has not fully mobilized its supporters. The Islamist party believes it stands to gain most from national dialog, leading to a gradual and guided transition of power.
Some tribes have dispatched representatives to Sana’a to participate in the protests, but Sheikh Sadiq Al Ahmar, arguably the country’s most powerful tribal leader, is reportedly concerned at the potential chaos that might result should the demonstrators force the president from office.
It is a fear shared even by Saleh’s critics who insist that Yemen is different from Egypt or Tunisia.
“The regime here is intertwined in the social fabric,” says one dissident. “They’re all tribal heads, they’re all influential, so when you say bring down the regime it’s like bringing down society.”
The protesters have failed to develop a coherent set of demands or project a political alternative in the event of Saleh stepping down.
“As a movement, there seems to be limited thinking about a way forward should that ever happen,” says NDI’s Therrien.
Many of Saleh’s critics are also reluctant to see him deposed peremptorily, fearing that power will simply pass to his nemesis, Hamid al-Ahmar, a business tycoon. While al-Ahmar funds the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue, an opposition coalition, their bitter, long-standing rivalry has little to do with ideology or policy.
“Both use patriotic expressions against each other,” says Sana’a-based analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani, “but it’s a pure political power struggle.”
The protest movement has denied rumors that al-Ahmar is bankrolling its activities.
But al-Ahmar may also be reluctant to force a showdown, local observers suggest, and is likely more focused on forcing concessions that boost his power base.
“Saleh and Hamid belong to the same tribal confederation. Yemen’s military is composed, mainly, of tribesmen from Hashid,” says Yemeni analyst Khaled Fattah. “Direct confrontation between the two men will lead to a massive tribal war in northern areas and clashes within the military.”
“The al-Ahmars want to bring about a major change but mostly in terms of taking away high military positions from the family members of the president, so that they will have a more official role in the security of the country,” says Murad al-Azzani, a political science professor at Sana’a university.