Yemen’s Leader Calls Off U.S. Trip Amid Anti-Regime Protests

By Patrick Goodenough | February 14, 2011 | 5:20 AM EST

A Yemeni demonstrator shouts slogans while raising his national flag during an anti-government protest in Sana’a on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

( – The president of Yemen has called off an official trip to Washington, amid signs that his recent attempt to defuse popular demands for political change have not had the intended effect in the strategically located Arab nation.

The decision, announced Sunday in a brief item posted on President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s official Web site, followed fresh demonstrations calling for his ouster, in the aftermath of last week’s dramatic resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

A Yemeni official was quoted as saying the visit had been “postponed due to the current circumstances in the region.”

Yemen’s stability is a regional priority for the U.S.  The Obama administration has backed Saleh’s bid to stave off an uprising by offering reforms.

But in new protests at the weekend, police used force to disperse demonstrators in the capital, Sana’a, and the southern city of Taiz. Some injuries and dozens of arrests were reported in the two locations.

In Sana’a Tahrir (“Liberation”) square, predominantly student protestors clashed with pro-government demonstrators who have been camping out there to block their opponents from turning it into a focal point for the protests, like its Cairo namesake.

Yemen’s Interior Ministry posted notices Sunday warning that anyone taking part in unauthorized protests would face police action, and advising that “inciters” of rallies would be tracked down and punished.

“The regime is currently tightening security and taking several measures amid fears the fever of protest spreads to the country in the aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions,” commented the Yemen Post newspaper.

The ousting under popular pressure of two autocratic Arab presidents over the past month prompted widespread anticipation that restive populations elsewhere in the region would turn on their leaders, and protests have taken place in Yemen, Jordan, Sudan and Algeria.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh meets with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Sana’a on January 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)

After Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years, was targeted in a wave of protests organized by established opposition parties late last month, he announced a series of concessions and reforms, led by a decision not to run for president again when his term expires in 2013 or to hand over power to his son.

He also called for dialogue with recognized opposition parties, promised to provide tens of thousands of job opportunities for university graduates and to raise government employees’ salaries.

Mainstream opposition parties were inclined to accept Saleh’s offer, but Mubarak’s decision to leave appears to have breathed new life into a drive by young Yemenis impatient for. Slogans used at the weekend included calls for Saleh to follow the Egyptian’s example, according to eyewitness accounts.

In a bid to prevent the unrest from spreading, the opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) announced at the weekend it was accepting Saleh’s reform proposals and was ready to begin dialogue with the ruling party. The coalition also said it was freezing all of its rallies.

But other groups that have been involved in the anti-government protests, including students and human rights campaigners, are not bound by that decision, and the announcement did not prevent the weekend demonstrations from taking place.

‘Yemen unlike Egypt, Tunisia’

Saleh’s foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, on Saturday played down the possibility of Yemen becoming the next country to fall to a popular uprising

Interviewed by the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, he said Yemen differed from Egypt and Tunisia in that its opposition was “engaged in a permanent dialogue with the government.”

“The demonstrations in Yemen are peaceful and opened the door for dialogue and for the president to affirm to the Yemeni people that the fears that may have surfaced after the events in Tunisia and Egypt are different from the situation in Yemen,” al-Qirbi said.

He conceded, however, that vigilance was needed “in monitoring and evaluating events and taking measures that prevent those that try to exploit the situation in a country to serve their own agendas.”

President Obama earlier this month encouraged Saleh to make good on his reform pledges, but also urged opposition parties to avoid provocation and to “respond constructively” to the reform offer, stressing the need to “resolve differences through dialogue and negotiation.”

The message was reiterated by U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, who was quoted as briefing Yemeni media Saturday evening that the U.S. believed the focus now “should be on the negotiation and not on the demonstrations on the street.”

According to the Yemen Observer, Feierstein “refused to compare Yemen to Egypt or Tunisia” and noted that Yemen had the advantage of having organized political parties that were recognized by the government.

The cautious stance reflects Washington’s particular concern about Yemen’s stability.

Located on the southern flank of the Arabian peninsula, across the Red Sea from north-east Africa, Yemen has emerged as an important frontline in the jihadist campaign against the West with the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The threat was underlined when AQAP claimed responsibility for an unsuccessful attempt by a young Nigerian to bomb a U.S. passenger plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

Last October, the al-Qaeda affiliate tried to mail parcel bombs to the U.S., and it succeeded in getting them onto commercial cargo planes bound for the U.S. before they were discovered.

U.S. National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter told a U.S. House committee that he viewed AQAP as “probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.”

The U.S. government says Yemen has cooperated with it against AQAP, but the regime is also preoccupied with other threats – Shi’ite Houthi rebels in the north, and a left-leaning separatist rebellion in the country’s south and eastern regions.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow