Here's What's Going On in Yemen

As protest fever spreads, one of the poorest nations in the Middle East gets even less stable

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When last we checked in with the impoverished Middle Eastern nation, it was undergoing smaller-scale versions of the kind of populist protests that have rocked Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks. Yemen's situation is particularly volatile, though, and more than one person has predicted that the country might shake itself apart before any kind of power transfer can take place. This week, Yemen's largest protests yet--with crowds more than 20,000 strong--have thrown into relief the question of whether embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh will remain in office. Here's a look at the latest developments:

  • President: OK, in 2013 I'm Outta Here  President Saleh announced on Wednesday that he'd leave office in 2013, when his current term ends. This is something of an about-face: according to The New York Times, Saleh had recently been trying to introduce "constitutional changes that would have allowed him to remain president for life." Saleh said that his son also won't be running in 2013--another about-face, according to BBC News: "There has been widespread suspicion that [he] was grooming his eldest son, Ahmed Saleh, who commands an elite unit of the Yemeni army, to succeed him as president."

  • Lessons Learned From Tunisia, Egypt  Saleh, like King Abdullah II in Jordan, appears to have absorbed the lesson of toppled Tunisian President Ben Ali, who's currently in exile and wanted by Interpol. Besides the decision to step down in 2013, Saleh has made a number of other conciliatory gestures, the Times reports: "He ordered the creation of a fund to employ university graduates and to extend social security coverage, increased wages and reduced income taxes and offered to resume a political dialogue that collapsed last October over elections."

  • Skepticism From Protesters  Saleh's pledge to leave office in two years is noteworthy, but the Times points out that he also "promised in 2005 not to run again, but then reneged and secured another term." Protester Shawki al-Qadi tells reporters, "He's been making promises for 32 years and never kept one ... When he promised to fight poverty, we got poorer. When he promised to leave office, he made amendments to stay forever." The Wall Street Journal reports that "Egyptian opposition leaders said immediately after Mr. Mubarak's late-night speech Tuesday that they would continue to call for his immediate departure from office."

  • A Very, Very Fragile Peace  Saleh has demonstrators of his own, and while anti-government groups massed in Sana, Yemen's capital, this week, Saleh's defenders gathered for a counter-rally. The Times quotes one pro-Saleh demonstrator, Sadiq al Qadoos, who said, "I came here today to take part in the rally against extremism and to promote democracy... and to show I am against chaos." The Times goes on to note that "what many feared would explode in violence tapered off on a peaceful note around lunch time." Still, the article points out that "a remarkably high proportion of citizens are armed" in Yemen, and "the potential for strife is difficult to overstate."

  • Meanwhile, Here Come the Hackers  Gawker's Adrian Chen reports that the hacking group Anonymous, which has already attacked the Web sites of the Egyptian government to protest the nationwide Internet blackouts in that country, is turning its attention to Yemen. "A bulletin in the Anonymous chat room dedicated to Operation Yemen boasts about taking down the Yemeni Ministry of Information's website," Chen writes. "The website of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is offline too--probably the work of the Anonymous." Chen goes on to note that "Yemenis probably will not notice Operation Yemen, given that only about five percent of them have access to the Internet. But that's not stopping Anonymous."

  • The U.S. Can Make Yemen Do Whatever It Wants, predicts a very confident Spencer Ackerman at Wired. "Saleh performs for the U.S. like a circus seal," Ackerman writes. "One of the WikiLeaks cables showed him offering to play dumb when U.S. warplanes wanted to take out al-Qaeda targets. But Saleh is the way he is because Yemen is the way it is, according to regional experts: broke, weak, and in hock to foreign cash. As long as the U.S. keeps its wallet open, a possible successor to Saleh would be just as ready to flap his flippers on cue."

  • Wrong--There's a Storm Coming  Dana Stuster at the Center for a New American Security writes that from an American perspective, "there are no good options in Yemen." Stuster writes that with Saleh (here called Salih), "the State Department will have another couple years of the same fair-weather ally they've come to know, but it will only postpone an inevitable transition. None of the candidates to succeed Salih seem conciliatory to U.S. interests, and it will not be enough to hope that Yemen's coming resource crisis will force the prospective Islah Party government or al Ahmar military regime into a dialogue. The United States needs to start making friends now, especially outside of Sanaa, with local and tribal leaders."

  • Just a Reminder: Yemen Is in Terrible Shape Already  It's worth noting that Yemen is a deeply troubled nation by any measure, with 35 percent unemployment and 45 percent poverty, according to the BBC's figures. There's "a rebellion in the north," the Times notes, "and a struggle for secession in the formerly independent south." Meanwhile, "an affiliate of Al Qadea has turned parts of the country into a refuge beyond the state's reach, from which it has launched terrorist attacks against the West."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.