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Yemen's 'Day of Rage' ends peacefully as president vows to step down

Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh says he will stand down when his current mandate ends. Blighted by internal conflicts and al-Qaeda infiltration, the direction of Yemen's future leadership is of international concern.

Yemeni protesters chants anti-government slogans during a protest in the capital Sana_a, Yemen, 24 January 2011.

Opposition to President Saleh's leadership is growing in Yemen

Tens of thousands of pro-and anti-government supporters staged protests on Thursday across Yemen. Dubbed the "Day of Rage" it was reminiscent of the waves of discontent with autocratic leaders sweeping across North Africa. However unlike events in those countries, the protests marches passed off peacefully.

Saleh had earlier attempted to quell the rising opposition and fermenting protest against him by announcing a freeze on his planned controversial constitutional changes and stand down in 2013.

He also pledged not to hand power to his son when he leaves office.

Saleh, who was re-elected for a seven-year mandate in September 2006, has ruled since 1978 and recently drafted an amendment to the constitution, which if passed, would allow him to remain in office for life.

About 16,000 people protested in Sana'a last week, some calling for Saleh to stand down, but the demonstrations passed off peacefully.

However, with guns outnumbering Yemenis by two to one and huge crowds expected to protest in the coming days, dissatisfaction with the president could explode into violence.

"President Saleh made a very similar statement in 2005, prior to the 2006 elections, which was a promise he clearly reneged on," Kate Nevens, a Yemen expert with the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle.

"He may be under both domestic and international pressure to release such a statement, but the majority of the Yemeni population are unlikely to trust in his promises."

Domestic hardships shape internal dissatisfaction

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Saleh has changed his mind about being president-for-life

Yemenis have become increasingly hostile to Saleh as conditions in the country have continued to deteriorate under his rule with about 40 percent of the population surviving on less than $2 (1.45 euros) a day and at least a third of Yemenis suffering from chronic hunger. In addition, more than half of Yemini 15- to 24-year-olds are unemployed, and refugees from war-torn Somalia have put extra pressure on the country's struggling economy.

The country has also been destabilized in recent years by two internal conflicts that the Yemini authorities continue to fight in two regions of the country; the separatist movement in the south and the revolt by followers of Shia cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, head of the Shia Zaidiyyah sect, in the north.

In addition to these conflicts, Yemen has become a hotbed of Islamist fundamentalism and is one of the main center of operations and recruitment for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Al-Qaeda ready to exploit any power vaccuum

Yemeni troops patrol after an alQaeda attack

Troops have been battling AQAP and domestic militants

News that Saleh will stand down in 2013 has raised fears over the future direction of Yemen and its security and stability, with the prospect of violent upheaval and the possible rise of radical Islamist infiltration of particular concern to regional analysts.

"Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula obviously benefits from any destablization in Yemen so we can predict a certain amount of agitation and provocation in this situation," Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington told Deutsche Welle. "Yemen is a country awash with guns and grievances and any situation like this has the potential to get a lot worse very quickly."

The additional possibility of protests, as seen in Tunisia and Egypt, leading to the early removal of power would present Yemen with an even more volatile situation, depriving the country of a staged transition to a new leadership and creating an instant power vaccum. This could allow all manner of actors to battle for control.

Even if Saleh makes it to the end of his mandate, it will only be the start of Yemen's succession problems.

"Yemen does not necessarily fit the conventional 'state' model," Nevens said. "Power is situated within what is known as a 'shadow elite'. What a successor would inherit is a system of complex patronage networks and balancing acts which are highly dependent on personal relationships forged by Saleh."

"There is no clear successor," she added. "The formal opposition is currently quite weak with no clear figurehead."

US may rethink policy of non-direct involvement

US flags over YEMEN map

Could an unstable Yemen force the US to directly intervene?

The US will be watching events in Yemen closely. As AQAP's influence and internal instability in Yemen has grown, President Barack Obama has decided against sending troops to Yemen, instead backing the Yemeni military with training, intelligence and equipment.

Barbara Bodine, former US ambassador to Yemen, believes a different US focus may have more beneficial effects in the wake of a new presidency.

"It is too early to tell how this will affect the influence of the United States but it will not change our interests," she told Deutsche Welle. "It does, however, highlight the downside of a security-centric approach begun under the last administration."

"The core issue in Yemen is unemployment - it is the key, fundamental and possibly existential issue. Yemen needs to create or find over five million jobs for its young population. The US cannot even create that many jobs here. It is unfortunate that more time, effort and funding was not directed into job creation, state institution building, human capacity, governance and these building blocks of a stable, rather than just secure, state."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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