Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh pledged Wednesday not to run in 2013 elections and to remove his son as his likely successor, an apparent concession to opposition groups before a day of planned protests in the capital, Sana.
Saleh announced that he would “freeze” proposed constitutional amendments that were to make him Yemen’s president for life and would also postpone April parliamentary elections widely dismissed as rigged in the government’s favor.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told parliament he would step down ahead of 2013 elections. He actually said he would not seek another term.
“No to hereditary rule and no to life presidency,” the 64-year-old president told parliament, according to the official Saba news agency.
“Regardless of the circumstances, I will make concessions one after the other for the sake of this nation,” he said in the 17-minute address. “The interests of the homeland are above our interests as individuals, parties, groups and commissions. It is a shame for us to destroy what we built.”
Analysts said the concessions would fail to satisfy a boisterous opposition movement inspired by anti-government uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Critics note that Saleh made a similar statement in 2005 about not running for reelection the following year, only to go back on his word after supporters staged demonstrations urging him to run again.
“The opposition doesn’t really believe in what he says,” said Shatha Harazi, a political reporter at Sana’s independent English-language Yemen Times. “He didn’t speak about canceling the amendments.... He’s trying to calm the anger. Once the opposition calms down, he will again discuss the elections and the amendments.”
The toppling of Tunisia’s longtime leader Zine el Abidine ben Ali on Jan. 14 after weeks of protests and the Egyptian uprising that erupted 11 days later have inspired calls for change from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
Protests against rising food prices and government repression have broken out daily in Sudan, with more demonstrations reportedly planned for Thursday. An activist told The Times that the opposition in the small Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain was planning a Feb. 14 “day of rage” against the ruling royal family. And activists have called for anti-government protests in Syria on Saturday.
Algeria and Libya have canceled soccer matches in apparent fear that huge crowds of young men watching games could turn into anti-government rallies. On Tuesday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II sacked his Cabinet in response to opposition protests against escalating prices and a lack of political freedom.
Yemen’s Saleh, who has served as president of the Arab world’s poorest nation since 1978, is among the most vulnerable Arab leaders.
His rule has been characterized by allegations of corruption, incompetence and nepotism. Yemen has one of the highest birthrates in the world and faces a critical water shortage. A secessionist movement has erupted in the south, an insurgency rages in the north, and Al Qaeda militants have taken root in the countryside.
Yemenis also complain of stagnant wages and high food prices. A wide coalition of relatively well-organized opposition groups that includes Islamists, trade unions and leftists has called for a “day of rage” Thursday against Saleh. On Tuesday, Saleh’s government approved emergency financial handouts for 500,000 families and tuition exemptions for college students.
He has called for a “comprehensive national dialogue” with the opposition in an attempt to defuse rising anger against him.
But the opposition coalition has rejected the president’s entreaties and urged supporters to participate in nationwide protests. “It’s expected to be huge,” said political reporter Harazi.