Yemen Inspired by Cairo But Fearful of Chaos

Yemenis fear country could collapse if it follows Cairo's example.

February 11, 2011, 12:51 PM

SANA'A, YEMEN <br/>Feb. 11, 2011 -- Hundreds of demonstrators erupted in joy in Yemen tonight at news that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ceded power in Egypt.

Car horns honked and flags flew as 300 demonstrators celebrated in front of Sana'a University.

But the demonstration didn't last long and Yemen returned to the quiet we've witnessed all week.

Like Cairo, Yemen's capital Sana'a has a Tahrir Square in the middle of the city. But it bore no resemblance to Liberation Square in Cairo last night.

There were only a few stray dogs and old men wandering around . The university was just as quiet. In fact we drove all over Sana'a last night and again today and the scene was the same. At a cafe that carried live pictures of the rally in Cairo, people glanced up once in awhile in between sips of tea. They said they were indeed inspired by what they were seeing, and wanted Mubarak to step down immediately, but they did not seem to want the same to happen here in Yemen.

Today, even the head of one of the opposition movements told us that he was satisfied with President Ali Abdullah Saleh's promise not to run for re-election and the concessions he has already offered.

Yes, Saleh learned a lot of lessons from watching the events in Tunisia and Egypt, and seems to have made a successful pre-emptive strike. It does not mean you won't see protests in other parts of the country --the south in particular where there is an ongoing secessionist movement -- but for now things are remarkably calm as far as the protests go.

One reason is that there seems to be a genuine fear that this country, the poorest in the Arab world, would collapse with the sudden departure of Saleh.

Yemen Wants Change, Fears Instability

And then there are the weapons. There are 25 million people and an estimated 60 million weapons. The government has done its part to convince people they should be very afraid of the collapse of this country.

The head of the central security forces, General Yahya Saleh, who is the president's nephew, told me "The problem here in Yemen is that people are carrying arms so the people in Yemen know that if things go out of control, that we enter a civil war. And it's not going to end up like Tunisia or Egypt because we had problems already, even before the demonstration. The problems will be exaggerated if there are violent demonstrations and we will lose stability and security in Yemen and al Qaeda will move forward and instead of hiding in the countryside will move into the city. Car bombs, they will enter the cities and it will be chaos."

No wonder almost everyone we talked to said they worried about the country's stability. And the fear among the people seems genuine, and the problem with al Qaeda is indeed growing.

Then again, perhaps the lack of motivation from the population has something to do with the massive amounts of the narcotic khat that the men here seem to chew constantly.

Western diplomats here have watched the protests in the last few weeks with great interest, but do not seem surprised they have died down. Of course they acknowledge that things could always change in an instant, a lesson they too have learned from watching events elsewhere.