In Yemen, Both Leadership and Opposition Face Possible Collapse

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.

In addition to his battles with the Hashid tribesmen, Saleh's forces are reportedly attacking the troubled town of Zinjibar in Yemen's south, which the Saleh government claims has been overrun by al Qaeda. Government forces are conducting air and artillery strikes in attempts to clear the town. In doing so, Saleh is promoting the image that gained him so much international support, that of the counterterrorism ally. And as with so much of Saleh's image management, there's a strong chance it is a ploy. According to residents in the town, Saleh's forces allowed militants to enter the town and take defensive positions, presumably to give the military an excuse to fight. It isn't even certain that the militants occupying the town are al Qaeda; there is no shortage of Islamist militant groups in the region, and some observers speculate the militants could be Southern secessionists. The shelling of Zinjibar is a last effort of Saleh to regain his counterterrorism reputation, and he likely hopes, support from foreign governments.

Zinjibar also provided Saleh with a useful distraction; while Yemen Air Force jets bombed Zinjibar on Monday, government forces opened fire on protesters and bulldozed the protest camp in Ta'iz. The attack occurred under cover of night and killed at least 20 protesters, though as many as 50 dead have been reported to the United Nations. It is the first time that the regime has razed a protest camp. If the government attacks the larger camp in Sanaa, it will almost certainly provoke a clash with the defected military forces there.

Saleh's departure has not solved the problem of leadership in Yemen. Rather it has complicated the issue. Vice President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi is acting president; notably, his office is in Yemen's Ministry of Defense, but his actual influence may be limited. According to Gregory Johnsen, a prominent blogger on Yemeni politics, Hadi earned his office largely because he is from the South (a token concession after the 1994 civil war), loyal, and weak. It is unclear at this point where the power lies in the Yemeni government, but it may rest with the commanders of the loyal military units, which are commanded by close relatives of Saleh. The government continues to be pressured by Hashid tribesmen. Despite reports on Sunday that a ceasefire had been reached, journalists in Sanaa reported on Twitter that shelling continued into the early hours of Monday morning.

There is no international deus ex machina coming to solve Yemen's political crisis. Since the outbreak of violence two weeks ago, there has been a deafening silence from Yemen's northern border. The Kingdom has a long and fraught relationship with Yemen. They have intervened in its wars, maintained patronage networks with tribes, and tried to contain al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has targeted Saudi prince Muhammad bin Nayyif. They may decide to keep Saleh in Saudi Arabia, but it is unclear what role they may play in resolving Yemen's continuing crisis. The Saudis have been waging counterrevolution efforts across the region to try to staunch the Arab Spring. Saleh's departure is another dangerous precedent for Saudi Arabia's efforts to stem the populist movements they fear, and while chaos might be instructive to aspiring revolutionaries, it is dangerous in its own right so close to the Saudi border. They have no good options.

Neither does the United States, which staked its interests in Yemen to the failed GCC deal. On Wednesday, the White House announced that the President's counterterrorism advisor John Brennan was flying to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to meet with GCC leaders. It also exhorted Saleh again to sign the agreement, despite the manifold faults of the proposal and the collapse of the international reconciliation effort. If the United States has a strategy for the situation now, it has yet to say so.

This -- except, of course, for the injury and emergency evacuation -- was Saleh's endgame. He fragmented the opposition. He sidelined the peaceful protesters and the defected military forces. He raised the specter al Qaeda and began stamping out protest camps. Challenging the tribes was a dangerous gamble; it split the opposition, but brought a war on Saleh that may have cost him his office -- if he attempts to return to Sanaa, it may cost him more. Even before Saleh was injured by shelling on Friday, Hamid al Ahmar suggested that the violence may claim Saleh's life. "If Saleh refuses to leave, well, we don't have a Sharm el Sheik in Yemen," he told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the location of Hosni Mubarak's post-dictatorship house arrest.

There is no guarantee that the violence will end with him. Saleh has played chicken with a civil war, one that may be fought without him. Things are falling apart. The death toll in Yemen has nearly doubled in the past two weeks, from approximately 170 when the GCC agreement collapsed to more than 350 on Friday, June 3. The shelling in Sanaa continues, and You Tube footage shows gunmen firing on protesters who had been celebrating Saleh's departure in Ta'iz. Even without Saleh, the blood-dimmed tide is still rising.

Presented by

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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