Yemen's stability threatened by protester deaths

Yemen's president should accept responsibility for Friday's massacre, regardless of who gave the orders to shoot.

'An excuse is far worse than the crime," an old Arabic saying advises. In the wave of popular protests and violent reactions in the Middle East, there hasn't been any shortage of unconvincing excuses, but the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh's abdication of any responsibility for the massacre of at least 46 protesters on Friday plumbs a new low.

Time and time again, events have clearly shown that crushing protesters by opening fire on them is a self-defeating exercise. The escalation of unrest in Libya, and to a lesser extent in Egypt, prove that overreaction by the regimes merely strengthens the resolve of the demonstrators. It is a lesson that has not been heeded in Yemen.

On Friday, Mr Saleh invoked the emergency law after dozens were killed in the biggest and deadliest day of anti-government protests yet in Sana'a's Change Square. The Yemeni leader, however, rejected any responsibility, instead blaming pro-government "thugs" who supposedly acted on their own accord. He said that he mourned the "martyrs of democracy". It was a statement that will carry little weight with families of the slain.

Security is a serious challenge in Yemen even aside from the political turmoil. The interior ministry estimates that there are three weapons for every citizen of the country; it is certainly not inconceivable that well-armed thugs acted on their own initiative.

But even if Mr Saleh is to be believed, he cannot shirk his responsibility for the violence. If the government did not order the crackdown, at the very least it stood by while civilians were killed. Despite the often imperfect flow of information out of Yemen, the accounts of gunmen opening fire into dense crowds and snipers picking off unarmed civilians from the rooftops has been burnt into the public consciousness.

"They want to scare and terrorise us," Jamal Anaam, a 40-year-old activist, told AFP. "They want to drag us into a cycle of violence - to make the revolution meaningless." So far, protesters have reportedly exercised restraint. In a country where weapons are so prolific, the consequences would be terrible if that were to change.

Yesterday Mr Saleh announced a ban on carrying arms. It is far too little, too late. Enforcement is almost impossible in the near-anarchy sweeping the streets.

Friday's bloodshed has made a negotiated solution all the more difficult. Mr Saleh has promised reforms but failed to provide the security necessary for them to succeed. It is a losing strategy for his government, and for Yemen.