In Yemen, Both Leadership and Opposition Face Possible Collapse

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Before President Saleh was injured on Friday, he had fractured the opposition and begun a violent conflict that continues without him

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Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Reuters

Late Saturday night, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Riyadh for emergency medical treatment for wounds suffered in an attack on the presidential palace on Friday. Other wounded officials -- reportedly including the prime minister, a deputy prime minister, the heads of each chamber of the legislature, and the president's security advisor - had been evacuated for treatment in Saudi Arabia earlier in the day while Saleh received treatment in Sanaa. He may have lingered with the understanding that departing during the months-long revolutionary movement would make his return to power, or even the country, difficult.

The news of Saleh's departure was heralded in the streets and protest camps with celebrations, but these are almost certainly premature. Over the past two weeks, Saleh has finally succeeded in fragmenting the opposition movement. In doing so, he provoked the violence that has now forced him from the country, but in the process, he has severely undermined the possibility for a transition to the sort of new and inclusive Yemeni government he resisted by all means possible.

The opposition movement has been an alliance of convenience between marginalized political parties, defected regime members, tribal leaders, members of the military, and a newly-empowered youth. For months, they were united in their calls for the end of Saleh's regime, but there was no consensus on what should follow. Whichever faction acted decisively stood to have the greatest role in shaping Yemen's future. The Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of minority political parties, tried to put itself at the opposition's forefront by signing a reconciliation agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) when other opposition groups would not, but the deal fell through, a blow to the JMP's prominence among the opposition. Since May 22, the leaders of the Hashid tribe have asserted themselves as the arbiters of Yemen's fate.

It is unclear who shot first -- each side blames the other -- but skirmishes erupted in Sanaa on Monday, May 23, between Hashid tribesmen and forces loyal to Saleh. The Hashid Tribal Federation is the most powerful tribal organization in the country; until 2007, they were led by Sheikh Abdullah al Ahmar, who, despite a deep involvement in an opposition political party, maintained a strong rapport with Saleh. Since his death in December 2007, his most prominent sons have been critical of the president, and in March formally announced their support for the opposition. Street battles between Hashid tribesmen and Saleh have continued since May 23, punctuated by ceasefires that have only collapsed in more violence. In a severe violation of the parley agreements of Yemeni tribal law, government forces shelled a meeting of tribal leaders attempting to mediate an end to the conflict; Sheikh Muhammad bin Muhammad Abdullah abu Lahum of the Bakil tribe, the second most powerful tribe in Yemen, was killed in the attack. Saleh seemed to be sending the message that there is only room for his authority in Yemen, and even the tribes are subject to him.

It was a bold move in a country which, by most accounts, is governed by a tribal system masquerading as a military autocracy (which in turn masqueraded as a democracy, if half-heartedly). Saleh is notorious for playing the allegiances of tribes against one another. By picking fights with most of the tribes of Yemen, he fractured the opposition movement. Many of the peaceful youth protesters who have camped in city squares in all the major cities in the country are committed to maintaining their non-violence, but their role is being drowned out by the tribal-based power jockeying, and they are threatened with being left behind in shaping the post-Saleh order. For now, the defected Yemeni military, led by Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar (no relation to the Hashid leadership), is staying neutral in the tribal fighting, instead committing itself to guarding the protest camp in Sanaa.

Fracturing the opposition movement is Saleh's greatest triumph in recent months. As Chatham House analyst Ginny Hill observed, there are now two power struggles in Yemen: the struggle between power elites (the president and the tribal leadership), and the struggle between the government and its people. The stakes in the struggles are different: one demands authority; the other, accountability. Even if the Hashid oust Saleh, there will plenty of other rivalries and grievances that could play out among those remaining.

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J. Dana Stuster, a Joseph S. Nye National Security Research Intern at Center for a New American Security, is a writer living in Washington, DC.

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