Another dinosaur nears the end, this time in Yemen

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt came so quickly that it looked like political change would soon sweep the whole region; then, Bahrain and Libya showed that overwhelming force could be used to put down the protests and it seemed, perhaps, that the movement for change was finished.  Throughout, the most persistent and sustained public demonstrations have been in Yemen, percolating in the background of the news but little noticed because they were occurring in a country that exists largely off the world media radar.

I went to Yemen a very long time ago, in 1992, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh had already ruled for 14 years, first as the leader of North Yemen and then, since 1990, over the precarious entity of unified Yemen which he held together by defeating the South in a civil war.  A lot of countries are described as ‘tribal’ and ‘medieval’ that aren’t, but Yemen was mountainous and verdant (at least by the desiccated standards of the region) and essentially ungovernable, with long-running tribal insurrections in several regions.  The capital Sana’a served then as something like Rick’s Cafe in the film Casablanca, a sanctuary for the region’s politically abandoned or otherwise unwelcome: Somalis fleeing the civil war that at that point no one in the outside world had really noticed, Yemeni expatriates kicked out of the Gulf states for their government’s support for Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and Iraqis (ironically, many of them anti-Saddam) fleeing oppression at home and barred from entry to any more hospitable country.  And Yemen was, even then, a hotbed of jihadi activity — it is, famously, Osama bin Laden’s birthplace — as a lot of men from across the Arab world who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan had found Yemen to be one of the few countries willing to take them in, or anyway incapable of keeping them out.  This was a combustible mix and the best that can be said of Ali Abdullah Saleh is that it took remarkable cunning to retain power for 19 more years, bringing his total to 33 years and counting.

But those days are numbered.  In the last few months, each time Yemen has made it into the headlines it seems as if Ali Abdullah Saleh was agreeing to shorten the duration of his remaining time in office — from eternity, to life, to the end of his term in 2013 — without ever quite accepting he had to go.  Now comes word that he has offered to leave office after a 30-day transition, naming his vice-president as caretaker in advance of elections to find a permanent replacement.  So is that it, then, for another of the Arab dinosaurs?  There are grounds for skepticism; chiefly, his conditions include a demand for legal immunity for him and his family, which few in the opposition will want to accept.  But there are grounds for hope, too, that if Ali Abdullah Saleh goes the momentum of revolution will once again gather force across the region.

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