The incumbent Yemeni president takes his hat out of the ring, or so it seems, amid intense speculation over the country's political future, Nasser Arrabyee reports
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Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, left, receives a warm welcome from a tribal leader
While Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he would not run for the country's presidency next year, aides insisted the nation could not function without him. "People are fed up with us, and we are fed up of power," Saleh said. The opposition says Saleh is not serious and that the announcement is early elections propaganda.
Addressing a large gathering in the presidential palace on 17 July, occasion of the 27th anniversary of his taking power, Saleh raised more than a few eyebrows: "I will not run for office in the next elections, out of conviction, not because of any pressure, and this is not only for the media, I am speaking seriously."
"I want you to look for someone who can lead the march," he continued, "either from the PGC (People's General Congress Party) or from the opposition, from among the young people. Our country is rich with young blood that can lead the country. Let's transfer power peacefully among ourselves."
"No, no, we want you, we want you forever," shouted some people in the gathering which brought together statesmen, parliament members, diplomats, opposition leaders, social figures, tribal chiefs and representatives of civil society organisations.
Official media reported the announcement as the most important turning point in the modern history of Yemen. The opposition press, however, has not buckled. Recently, some writers have gone beyond traditional red lines, attacking Saleh directly and demanding his resignation.
"The PGC will hold its general conference next November and will affirm its adherence to the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh as president of the republic," said Vice President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi. "The nation needs the leadership of Saleh for his long-standing experience and the substantial achievements realised in his reign," Hadi added.
Sources close to PGC decision-makers said Saleh might retract his decision, leave the leadership of PGC and run for the presidency anyway. "One year from now, things will certainly change," sources told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Saleh's decision was to soothe the atmosphere and remove tensions which exist in the political arena because of critical reports which held Saleh responsible for widespread corruption," the sources added.
For his part, Ali Al-Sarari, chairman of the political circle of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), said the president's decision was but "a response to strong criticism" addressed to him by the opposition press. "After 27 years in power," Al-Sarari continued, "I think time has come for change. If President Saleh is serious, he must arrange for genuine peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections," Al-Sarari said.
Mohamed Qahtan chairman of the political circle of Islah -- the largest Islamic-oriented opposition party -- said that Saleh's statement surprised everyone, even senior officials of his own party, the PGC. Qahtan called on political parties to study the announcement of the president and adopt a national vision on this important decision.
Sultan Al-Atwani, secretary-general of the Unionist Nasserite Party, described the decision as brave, saying it will embolden genuine democracy and give opportunity to young leaders. But the Nasserite official added: "There is still much time ahead, so the PGC may pressure its chairman not to withdraw from political life, convincing him to run for office as the only candidate."
About rumours that the president's decision may precede passing power to his son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, Atwani replied: "In fact, in our Arab scene there are preparations for successors from the same family, but we, in the opposition, can say that if Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh stands for office in the elections, there will be no equivalence between him and any other candidate because the resources of the state will be used for supporting him."
According to Yemen's constitution, Saleh is entitled to run for the last time in the September 2006 presidential elections for six-year term. President Saleh took power in the north of Yemen on 17 July 1978. He has held power longer than any other Yemeni president since the republic was proclaimed in the north and the south in 1962 and 1967, respectively.
While some observers argue 27 years of rule annuls the principle of the peaceful transfer of power, others see stability in a country that suffered greatly from internal conflicts and civil wars. During the 16 years 1962-1978, two Yemeni presidents were assassinated and two others toppled by coups in the north of Yemen, while one Yemeni president was assassinated and three others toppled by coups in the south of the country during the 23 years 1967-1990.
On 22 May 1990, President Ali Abdullah Saleh and President Ali Salem Al-Baid, president of the south, proclaimed unity between south and north and agreed on forming a five- member presidential council. Saleh was chosen as chairman and Al-Baid as vice chairman. Two members were belonging to Saleh's PGC party and one to Al-Baid's party, the YSP.
The two parties shared power during the transitional period 1990-1993. In the 1993 parliamentary elections, the PGC won 123 seats of the 301-seat House of Representatives, while the YSP won only 56 seats. The Islamic Islah Party won 62 seats. A coalition government was formed among the three parties. One year later, civil war broke out which led to the exile of the majority of YSP leaders outside Yemen. The war left approximately 10,000 dead and cost the country more than $10 billion, according to official statistics.