Will Civil War Eclipse Peaceful Protests in Yemen?

Yemeni security forces and tribal fighters are engaged in deadly clashes

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In the wake of a third straight day of bloody clashes between Yemeni security forces and opposition tribal fighters (pictured above) in the capital, Sanaa, news reports today are all touching on a similar theme: the peaceful anti-government protests that erupted in Yemen on the heels of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings may soon be drowned out by a frightening development: civil war. Wednesday's street battles left at least two dozen people dead and turned Sanaa--once the scene of mass non-violent demonstrations like this one--into a "war zone" filled with the sounds of "exploding mortar shells" and machine gun fire, according to The New York Times.

First, some context: The AP explains that the violence first erupted on Monday--a day after Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh once again backed out of a Gulf-mediated deal for him to transfer power--when Saleh's troops stormed the compound of the Ahmar family, which leads Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid (local residents, however, say the fighting started when Ahmar's guards entered a primary school where they believed Saleh's troops were stockpiling weapons, according to The Guardian). Saleh has accused the Ahmar family of dragging Yemen toward civil war, while the Ahmar family, along with Yemen's official and popular opposition, which the tribe supports, are accusing the Yemeni leader of doing the same to stay in power. How are analysts assessing the situation?

Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen tells the AP that fighting could indeed spread across the country if Yemen's first armored division--which Saleh's troops fired on late on Wednesday--gets involved. The division is control by Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar family), who threw his support to the protesters in March. The Times, meanwhile, adds that Yemen also faces the specter of intertribal conflict, especially after several prominent tribal leaders came under fire on Tuesday at the Ahmar compound as they tried to help mediate the conflict, with two reportedly dying. "Tribal leaders from across Yemen," the paper explains, have "begun threatening to descend on the capital with thousands of warriors to strike back at Mr. Saleh." The Guardian adds that neighboring Saudi Arabia may be forced to intervene to head off civil war.

But others say talk of civil war is premature. Yemeni political analyst Mohammad Zaheri, for example, tells Gulf News that while the situation in Yemen is "dangerous", Yemen isn't poised for "internal tribal conflict or the beginning of civil war." It seems, he adds, that "Saleh has started to play the tribal card." Indeed, in an interview with The New Yorker in April, a prominent member of the Ahmar tribe, Hameed al-Ahmar, told Dexter Filkins that Saleh has managed to stay in power for three decades by pitting tribes against one another and making them believe that they need him. The Times adds that a diplomatic solution to Yemen's political impasse isn't out of the question either, especially since the U.S., concerned that the stalemate could strengthen the hand of al-Qaeda in Yemen, may turn up the pressure on Saleh by weighing U.N. sanctions against him.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.