By Erika Solomon and Mahmoud Habboush DUBAI | Wed Feb 2, 2011 12:55pm EST
(Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, facing the prospect of protests echoing those in Tunisia and Egypt, has promised to end his three-decade-old rule in 2013 but critics may have cause to doubt his sincerity.
Saleh, a U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda and a shrewd political survivor, has backed out of previous promises to step aside. His pledge could be a genuine way to exit gracefully but he may also hope to wait out regional popular unrest and reassert his dominance another day.
"I think his pledge not to run again should be treated with quite a lot of caution," said Lucy Jones, a Middle East Analyst for the London-based Control Risks group.
"He's made this kind of promise before. In 2006, the last presidential elections, he did this and then went back on his decision."
Saleh may find that game hard to play again. His strategic move will be put to the test on Thursday, when protesters plan to hold a rally, and whether that attracts more than the 16,000 who took to the streets last week to demand a change in government.
"Demonstrations have so far been sporadic and they need to gain momentum," said Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Doha Center. "The trajectory of the demonstrations will decide the fate of Ali Abdullah Saleh."
A big turnout on Thursday would signal that ordinary Yemenis, beyond the core of the traditional opposition, are not satisfied with Saleh's concessions.
Security analyst Theodore Karasik said the concessions were significant and were a smart move by a leader who might want to leave on his own terms to influence the transition.
Among Saleh's concessions were a pledge not to pass on power to his son and an offer to form a unity government, as well as other promises including dropping proposed constitutional changes that toyed with the idea of cancelling or altering term limits.
Many analysts say Saleh is practicing business as usual.
"This is how President Saleh has always tended to rule ... The president wants to remain in power, and he's going to do what he cans to make sure that happens," said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University. "His big concern is making sure this doesn't overturn his rule at the moment. Whatever happens in 2013, he'll deal with that then."
Saleh, who has a military background, is a clever political player who has used tribal allegiances and political bargaining to keep challenges at bay.
His cash-strapped government is not only trying to quell a resurgent regional wing of al Qaeda based in Yemen, next door to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia. It is trying to suppress an increasingly violent separatist movement in south Yemen and cement an uneasy ceasefire with Shi'ite rebels in the north. Yemen is struggling with soaring unemployment and dwindling oil and water reserves. Almost half its 23 million people live on $2 a day or less, and a third suffer from chronic hunger.
The risk now is that, if Saleh fails to follow through on his promises, diverse groups could combine forces with mainstream opposition parties to mobilize under shared grievances against Saleh's government.
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