While much of the world’s attention was riveted on the drama in Libya, Friday marked a tragic turning point in the popular protests in Yemen.
Snipers in plain clothes took up positions on buildings around the main square in Sanaa and slaughtered at least 40 citizens taking part in a peaceful protest; hundreds more were wounded by the gunfire as well as by rocks hurled at them. President Ali Abdallah Saleh declared a state of emergency shortly after the target practice ended, and he swore that none of the killers were army or government forces.
No one, of course, should believe his version of events; and this crime against his people means that he must leave office immediately. The time has come for him to step down and stop the assault on his country’s people.
Saleh utterly failed to learn a thing from the uprisings that felled tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt – and, one hopes, will drive another out soon in Libya – and the inhabitants of those countries were in a multitude of respects far better off than the largely impoverished and illiterate tribal populace of Yemen.
Saleh, it can be argued, has done a far worse job addressing the serious threats to Yemen’s stability than the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya did in their respective nations – and those three leaders were all despotic, corrupt and mostly incompetent. The south of Yemen, for example, still wants to secede from north, where Saleh’s severely limited power is based; worse for him, the south is where the country’s more educated citizens reside.
In addition, Al-Qaeda has managed in Yemen to build up its most flourishing affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula. Saleh only recently finished quashing another challenge to his authority, this time by the Houthis, a Shiite tribe residing along Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia.
Even without these worries, Saleh has misruled Yemen for more than 30 years; he lately has been plotting to amend the constitution to make formal his standing as president-for-life – and he was planning to ensure that his son would succeed him, a best practice among all leading Arab dictators.
It was past time for him to depart; the litany of his wrongdoing would not be complete, however, without a word about the enabling role played by his allies. Friday’s massacre should serve as a wake-up call to rouse these nations to act in the same way that the United Nations recently did in the case of Libya.
The friends of Saleh should ally themselves instead with the Yemeni people, who seem only to want to push out their president before he kills any more of Yemen’s people.