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When will Yemen’s night really end?
28 July, by Gabriele vom Bruck


Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh might be forgiven for refusing, on 22 May, to sign a Persian Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (An incomplete reference was completed) (An incomplete reference was completed)-brokered agreement obliging him to rescind power within a month. The date marked the twenty-first anniversary of the unification of his Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY)men (PDRY) in the south — the highlight of his political career. However, this was the third time he failed to confront the inevitable, so failing to ease the dangerous impasse in the country he has ruled for over three decades. Yemen, as Amnesty International warns, is “on a knife-edge”.

Thus far, the country has been spared another devastating war, one potentially bloodier than those fought since unification in 1990. In the capital Sana, in spite of daily harassment, tear gas, beatings and killings by security forces, the protests have for the main part remained peaceful, even after the killing of over fifty protesters on 18 March. In the southern city of Taiz, where security forces destroyed protesters’ tents, killing dozens of them on 30 May, “Martyrs’ Square” — recently renamed “Freedom Square” — has again become testimony to the city’s martyrs. There are daily clashes in the southern provinces (in the former PDRY); five provinces in various parts of the country are no longer under government control. Since the attack on Saleh’s palace mosque on 3 June which compelled him to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, there has been a power sharing of sorts. Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi has become acting head of state, but Saleh’s eldest son Ahmad has moved into the palace and the government insists that Saleh will return and rule until the end of his term in office in 2013. Amid continuing deadly clashes in several areas and a looming humanitarian crisis, a political transition process is urgently needed.

The current crisis follows the trajectory of Saleh’s rule: the president is not known for seeking peaceful solutions to political crises. He has relied on “divide and rule” tactics to neutralise threats to his authority, and on a patronage system that permeates all sectors of government and society. The political elite exercises authority through extra-constitutional means and controls a substantial part of the business sector. The provision of public services to provinces has often been made dependent on political loyalty — a policy which has served to perpetuate historical grievances and antagonism. Even where obvious solutions were available to some of the country’s more entrenched problems, the political will was lacking. Yet western nations offered support to Saleh’s regime even as he lost legitimacy among his people. In the past months the regime, as well as western diplomacy, has been challenged in the streets of Yemen’s towns and cities. US foreign secretary Hillary Clinton’s statement on 2 June 2011 that “if it wasn’t obvious before it certainly should be now that [Saleh’s] presence remains a source of great conflict” reads like an embarrassing admission of past misjudgement. In 2010, the so-called “Friends of Yemen” was established, a group made up of 20 countries determined to improve Yemen’s capacity to maintain security and increase and coordinate foreign assistance. The tragic irony of the project was that it sought to stabilise a country that had been systematically destabilised by its leader.

Square of dignity

Nowadays, Yemen’s capital is divided by checkpoints manned by rival factions of the army, some of them allied with militias loyal to tribal leaders. Fearful residents argue that this stand-off is reminiscent of events in 1994 which marked the end of a promising period of liberalisation which had begun in 1990. The armies of the former YAR and the PDRY confronted and eventually fought each other, leaving thousands dead. Yemen’s democratic experiment, strained by economic downturn and the two former leaders’ ambition to outsmart each other, was doomed to failure.

Saleh, emboldened by his victory over the south, now exercised power over a territory which was last ruled over as a united polity in the 17th century. Instead of investing in institution building and national unity, he created and exploited divisions among potential rivals. The following decades were marked by the accumulation of power within a narrowly defined circle of trusted men (many from the Hashid tribal confederation), repression of civil liberties, and war.

Regionally focused demonstrations in northern and southern Yemen since 2003 have escalated into nation-wide anti-regime protests modelled on those in Tunisia and Egypt, and the army’s loyalties have been divided. Troops commanded by Yemen’s top general, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the most high profile government official to have defected after the March 18 massacre, now protect street protestors. Seasoned Yemeni political analysts have long predicted that the fall of Saleh’s regime would be caused by internal rivalries. Rumours persist that the recent assassination attempt on Saleh’s life was an insider job. Indeed, events over the past years go some way to explain the current crisis — increasing intra-elite rivalry, the thorny issue of “dynastic” succession, the regime’s ambivalent accommodation with jihadis of various kinds, and western foreign policy that prioritised its own interests even in the face of mounting opposition to Saleh’s regime.

However, the main drivers of regime change seem to be those who have taken to the streets since January, among them many young people. The unemployment rate among the young exceeds 50%. Disillusioned with the opposition parties which make up the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an alliance of six parties, they demand fundamental political reform. Since the protests began, they have asked for national dignity, transparency in governance, civic freedoms and better economic opportunity.

Women, some of whom had already been demonstrating in recent years in front of the Political Security Office asking for the release of their relatives, have been among the most outspoken. Tawakkul Karman, head of the NGO Women Journalists without Chains, maintains that “we will make the revolution, or we will die trying” (1).

Karman and other activists boldly invited the southern opposition, Zaydi rebel forces (Huthis), trade unions, the army, civil society organisations and tribal leaders to join the demonstrations. Saleh, in an apparent effort to discredit the protestors and remove women from the republican guard’s firing line (women’s deaths would create even more outcry among the population), argued that ikhtilat (the mixing of men and women protestors) was un-Islamic. His speech was interpreted as an encouragement to radical elements to cause divisions — and some women who were marching side by side with the men were beaten by guards associated with Islah, a moderate Muslim party composed of Muslim Brothers and Salafis. The women complained that Saleh had offended them, and five thousand of them then demonstrated in Sana on 16 April.

In view of the moral codes in northern Yemen prohibiting communication among unrelated men and women except in places such as universities, cross-gender political debates in the square have been as important as those among the young who have spent weeks in tent cities modelled on those which first appeared in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. At one entrance a large poster welcomes people “to the first kilometre of dignity”; another reads “Welcome to the land of liberty”. Karman herself claims that the “Yemeni revolution has succeeded in bringing about the unity the regime has failed to achieve.”

Young people’s discussions contribute to the formation of a democratic process which has so far been marred by manipulated elections and media repression. Daily consumption of qat (a mild recreational stimulant) in people’s houses has always provided a forum for lively political debates outside parliament. These gatherings are not exclusive in theory, but they tend to be segregated by gender, region and sometimes class. Nowadays protesters across the country — religious conservatives, liberals, the unemployed, professionals, men and women — who share meals and qat are united in their demand for “the night to come to an end”, a slogan they have adopted from Tunisian protestors.

In spite of the enthusiasm, activists admit that solidarity coexists with mistrust: they fear infiltration by the security forces. In the tents and on stage, academics and human rights and youth activists hold seminars on civic and women’s rights, the rule of law and non-violent resistance. More than 20 newspapers written by “citizen journalists” are published and distributed in the square, giving young people a voice. There is street theatre focused on human rights and art therapy workshops for those orphaned during the uprising. Some tents are shared by rivals from the eastern part of Yemen who have been locked into century-old feuds and have now signed a truce. I was told by an elderly man, a tribal leader from Sadah, one of Yemen’s most remote and conservative provinces, that six of his sons were living in the tent city. A young revolutionary in the 1960s, he had been instrumental in driving the last royalist defender of the ancien regime out of the area (2). Unable to enjoy an education himself, he promoted that of his children: his eldest daughter, the first woman to graduate from Sadah’s secondary school, holds a doctorate from the University of Tunis. He supported Saleh until he began futile military operations in his home province against students and tribesmen demonstrating against the US-led invasion of Iraq and against the government, accusing it of corruption and of assenting to discrimination against the Zaydi minority (a moderate branch of Shia Islam) by their Sunni detractors, the Salafis.

Flirting with jihadis

Saleh’s ascendancy in 1978 coincided with the swift rise of Salafist teachers and preachers all over the republic, gradually undermining age-old Zaydi and Sufi practices the Salafis consider deviant. Saleh acquiesced in the new religious movement for several reasons. It has contributed to emasculating the old Zaydi elites whose loyalty he suspected, and it preaches obedience to the ruler.

Also, Saleh was indebted to his wealthy northern neighbour which was instrumental in bringing him to power; the Salafist project became part of Saudi Arabia’s mission and patronage network in Yemen. The wider Sunni Muslim movement, embracing politically aloof as well as militant jihadis, testifies to the impact of the Cold War on Yemen. At that time the US encouraged Saudi sponsorship of Salafist groups in the hope that they would diminish Soviet influence in the PDRY. In the 1990s veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan were welcomed by the Yemeni government; some were given positions in the security and intelligence apparatus. According to one of Saleh’s former political advisors, their presence in those institutions has facilitated the upsurge of Al-Qaida in Yemen. Muslim militia were used by the Yemeni government against its opponents, the National Democratic Front (supported by the PDRY), in the war of 1994 and against Zaydi rebels a decade thereafter. The government largely turned a blind eye to the spread of religious schools promoting an authoritarian, intolerant Islam — one of them was attended by Osama bin Laden’s future wife, who tried to protect him from the American bullets prior to his execution in Abbottabad. Her classes were run by the wife of one of bin Laden’s closest Yemeni aides, Rashad Muhammad Said, a preacher who chose her as bin Laden’s bride.

For many years Saleh appeared to assume that Salafist jihadis did not pose a domestic danger, and only put a curb on them at the behest of the United States. By the time the USS Cole was attacked near the port of Aden in 2000, and the World Trade Center in New York shortly after, Saleh had learned lessons from the consequences of his government’s no vote at the Security Council and offered the US full cooperation in the “war on terror” (3). The invasion of Iraq, sweeping away Saleh’s closest ally in the region, Saddam Hussein, convinced him that hostility to western interests did not pay off.

The “war on terror” also provided a convenient template for moving against a new charismatic Zaydi leadership in the northern province of Sadah that had emerged in response to vigorous Salafist missionary activity. Critics within the Yemeni government argued that the president had become politically indebted to the jihadis, and that the “history of coddling Islamic extremists for political support” had served to fuel Zaydi anti-regime activism (New York Times, 29 June 2008). The Zaydi revival was also an affront to Saudi sensibilities. Salafist-inspired madrasas and mosques, ideologically akin to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis, are visible signs of the success of the Saudi dynasty which otherwise lacks political prestige in Yemen. Most significantly, the six years of intermittent war in Sadah (2004-2010) have revealed cracks in the regime’s authority structure and power struggles within it that have reverberated in the 2011 protest movement.

War in the north, and its aftermath

Prior to the start of the military campaign in Sadah, two of Saleh’s loyal comrades-in-arms, Yahya al-Mutawakkil and Mujahid Abu Shawarib, advised him to bolster recently reinstated Zaydi institutions in order to weaken the Islah party which had gained strength after the war of 1994. Saleh obliged but was concerned that they might establish an alliance with his southern opponents and undermine his rule. (Both men, potential successors to Saleh, died in mysterious car accidents.) Like them, General Ali Muhsin, commander of the 1st armoured brigade who led the war in Sadah and was himself politically ambitious, opposed Saleh’s grooming of his eldest son Ahmad as his successor. As tensions grew between the two men, Saleh had the general’s brigades moved away from the capital and established new security organisations headed by his nephews who he believed would back his son.

The prolonged war also demonstrated that Saleh’s divide and rule policy no longer worked. In the mountains of Sadah it culminated in a humanitarian catastrophe, and weakened the economy even further. However, western powers mostly treated the war as a domestic issue, signalling to Saleh that he would get away with the violent suppression of dissent and human rights violations. International NGOs informed western diplomats that the Yemeni government had less regard for the Geneva Convention than Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. But some of those who, in the context of the Libyan crisis, vowed to support “the values which are dearest to us, those of human rights and democracy” — above all President Sarkozy (The Economist, 5 March 2011) — provided Saleh’s army with satellite images to better fight those who demanded freedom of expression and an end to injustice. Prior to the end of the war and despite brutal suppression of dissent in the southern provinces, the US increased its military aid to Saleh’s regime. (It was only in 2010 that the United States urged Saleh to end the war in Sadah.) The peace agreements that emerged from Qatar’s brave mediation efforts between the Yemeni government and Huthi (Zaydi) rebels did not hold.

By considering the war as an internal affair, western nations tacitly acquiesced in Saleh’s reluctance to “internationalise” the conflict by discouraging the UN from playing a role in establishing peace. Hence urgent issues of reconciliation, confidence building and the formation of a ceasefire-monitoring team were neglected. Subsequently Sadah fell into rebel hands, the first province to become quasi-autonomous. Since most government officials fled the province after the protest movement this year, it has been peaceful; and it is enjoying electricity for the first time in its history (because the government withheld humanitarian assistance as a weapon of war, it was previously supplied only to government-held areas). Since May, the World Food Programme has been able to expand its activities into all districts. But Saleh’s failure to negotiate a peace agreement under international (or regional) auspices will make it much more difficult for his eventual successor to re-establish sovereignty over Yemen’s northern territory.

Against the background of the current alliance between Gen. Ali Muhsin (now one of Saleh’s most important challengers) and Hamid al-Ahmar, both affiliated to Islah and the 1st Armoured Brigade, the timing of the latest round of fighting in Sadah is crucial (4). After declaring on 17 July 2008 (the 30th anniversary of his rule) that “blood should no longer be spilled between Yemeni brothers” and that “another Darfur” was to be avoided, Saleh again pursued military operations against Huthi rebels a year later.

The start of Operation Scorched Earth in August 2009 coincided with Hamid al-Ahmar’s determination to organise nation-wide anti-regime demonstrations to oust Saleh from power unless he agreed to certain demanding conditions. Even then Hamid al-Ahmar confided to the US government that he wanted to convince Gen. Ali Muhsin — now known as the “renegade general” in Yemeni government circles — to join the opposition. Another war in Sadah provided Saleh with an opportunity to distract Hamid from his endeavour and diminish several of his key enemies all at once. In the light of renewed warfare, promoted by the regime as the defence of national unity and democracy, countrywide demonstrations against Saleh’s rule would have been inappropriate and, in any case, tribal militia belonging to the Hashid confederation, represented by Hamid and his brothers, supported the army’s war effort. In this fiercest round of fighting Saleh hoped to defeat the rebels, and made a futile attempt at directing “friendly fire” at Gen. Ali Muhsin. Republican guards commanded by Saleh’s son Ahmad entered the war only in 2006 and in 2009-10, preventing the rebels from reaching the capital’s vicinity. The use of the guards, superior to the badly trained, demoralised soldiers available to Ali Muhsin who made no progress in the war against the well-motivated rebels, was to establish his son’s worthiness and to discredit the general. Yet what caught the West’s attention during the most ferocious period of the war towards the end of 2009 was a failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abd al-Mutallab to detonate explosives in a plane over Detroit.

At the same time there was a massive bombardment of villages by Yemeni and Saudi forces, causing huge numbers of civilian deaths and the levelling of the only hospital in northwestern Yemen. The young Nigerian’s endeavour, apparently linked to the merger of Al-Qaida’s Yemeni and Saudi branches into a regional franchise that same year, caused alarm in US and European capitals, and led to the formation of the Friends of Yemen (5). Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commented that without the fear of terrorism developments in Yemen would have been unlikely to have evoked “much alarm in Western policy circles”. This last minute crisis management (“stabilisation effort”), however well-meaning, came too late and took into consideration neither political grievances nor Saleh’s history of broken promises and the entrenchment of Muslim radicals in the security forces.

The regime maintains disorder in order to guarantee its survival (6). It may be less repressive than that of Syria and Libya but drawing an unfavourable cartoon of the president would land you in the Political Security prison. A journalist, Abd al-Karim al-Khaywani, spent months in prison, ill-treated, after publishing a list of members of the president’s clan who held key positions. (He later received the 2008 Amnesty International “Award for Human Rights Journalism under Threat”.) The substantial increase in military aid - mostly earmarked for the central Security Forces and Counterterrorism Units, run by Saleh’s close relatives, who are in charge of combating Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - was not conducive to encouraging Saleh to solve problems politically rather than through force. Yet the prevailing conflicts were by no means intractable. In the south, the release of political prisoners and return of private and public land appropriated by his cronies in 1994 would have done much to ease tensions and to limit secessionist ambition.

The monopolisation of US military aid by the president’s close relatives served to exacerbate competition among the new generation of political aspirants, Saleh’s sons and nephews and Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar’s sons. The latter, though well placed, were resentful of this new source of prestige available to their rivals. The enhanced military budget served to embolden the president who came to believe that the US would protect him irrespective of whether or not he would implement reforms. His ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), suggested amendments to the constitution that would abolish presidential term limits and thus enable him to seek another term after the end of his present one in 2013. He expected neither much criticism from the “Friends” nor uprisings against authoritarian regimes across the region.

Even while Saleh was facing serious challenges to his rule, US policy makers held that another incumbent might be less successful against Al-Qaida. During the early phase of the anti-regime protests, Yemeni activists were discouraged by both US and EU officials (New Yorker, 11 April 2011). US officials lamented Saleh’s half-hearted commitment to fighting terrorism, but Defence Secretary Robert Gates argued that the Yemeni president’s replacement by a weaker leader would pose “a real problem” for US counterterrorism work. There was sufficient fuel for irritation. The US government was aware that Yemeni army units it had trained and weapons it had supplied for combating Al-Qaida were used against Al-Qaida’s enemies - the Huthis - and against street protesters; yet it suspended its aid package only in mid-July. Furthermore, Saleh did not close al-Iman University, referred to by Yemeni political analyst Abd al-Ghani al-Iryani as a “cradle of extremism”, where both John Walker Lindh and Umar Farouk Abd al-Mutallab had been taught. It is run by Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a firebrand cleric who was Saleh’s political ally until he joined protesters in 2011.

It would seem that the United States supported the PGCC (An incomplete acronym was completed: PGCC)-brokered deal because it stipulated that a substantial number of government officials would be represented in the interim council. Thus, the counterterrorism file could still be held by Yahya Muhammad Saleh, the president’s nephew, who has been praised for his cooperation. Muslim militia fighters gained control of two cities in southern Yemen and came close to Aden and the Arabian Sea, yet it was only in July that the US administration insisted on an immediate transition of power, rather than continuing to prop up the Yemeni regime. It is widely believed that Saleh was keen to raise fears that the militants would expand their operations were he to step down.

But the Americans seem to have interpreted their territorial gains as demonstrating the regime’s inability to protect their interests in the country. Having allowed the Iraqi dictator to use attack helicopters in the no-fly zone against those leading a revolt against him in 1991, the administration has finally realised that helping authoritarian regimes to survive in the face of popular uprisings does not serve their long-term interests. It would seem the US considered Saleh a useful ally because he gave them a free hand in pursuing Al-Qaida rather than because his forces had achieved anything themselves. When 35 women and children died in a US airstrike on an Al-Qaida camp in Abyan province in December 2009, Saleh “covered” for his American friends by claiming that his air force had carried out the attack. Once it became clear that Saleh’s period in office would soon be terminated, the US began increasing its unpopular and controversial drone attacks, as well as the number of CIA operatives in the country. In June it announced the establishment of a CIA air base to target AQAP (it is still unclear whether it will be built in Yemen or in the Gulf).

If the rise to power by groups hostile to US and Saudi foreign policy were to provoke a military intervention by US forces, it would be likely to inspire a nation-wide uprising against them and lead to the country’s fragmentation. The Yemeni opposition, cognisant of US security concerns, have pledged their commitment to fighting AQAP and argued that their message to the militants was that regime change could be brought about peacefully. Indeed counterterrorism measures seem futile as long as misrule, social injustice and lack of services serve to fuel grievances among the population, making it susceptible to Al-Qaida’s message. Few people doubt that the tribes would be able to eliminate them once a legitimate civilian government was in place. In the southern province of Abyan, tribesmen have already begun to fight militants who control several cities, and members of the Awadhil tribe decided not to offer refuge to either local or foreign fighters (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 19 July 2011).

Fathers, sons and patrons

Political analysts will question whether the PGCC (An incomplete acronym was completed: PGCC)-negotiated agreement was stillborn for a long time to come. It calls for Saleh to transfer authority to the vice president within 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution, to be followed by an interim government made up of members of his ruling party and the opposition. Elections were to be held within two months — a period far too short to allow parties to campaign. Youth representatives rejected the agreement demanding that the president step down and face trial. Due to the immunity clause the plan could neither be endorsed by the UN. The EU remains committed to the agreement.

Since the protest movement has engulfed most of Yemen’s governorates, the UN has had regular consultations with the government. In spite of failing to issue a joint statement, discussion of the Yemeni crisis at the UN Security Council this April was significant because it signalled to Saleh that it was being given international attention. The UN report based on the Security Council meeting urges national dialogue and avoidance of violence. Anticipating the failure of the PGCC (An incomplete acronym was completed: PGCC)-plan, the UN special envoy to Yemen has argued in favour of a more inclusive political process involving all political players - including those outside the institutionalised political parties, among them representatives of the Southern Mobility Movement (al-hirak al-janubi), the youth movement and the Huthis. Having opposed UN mediation in the Sadah conflict, Saleh has become more accommodating to the UN’s more active role in the current crisis; prior to the attempt on his life, he endorsed the roundtable discussion proposed by the UN. Participants would have to agree on a coalition government, a date for elections, new defence structure centring on the integration of various rival factions of the army, and a process to revise the constitution. The Joint Meeting Parties have opposed a UN-sponsored national dialogue as long as power has not been transferred to Saleh’s vice president.

The UN’s supervisory role in future elections would contribute to guaranteeing fairness and enable new institutions to be built on existing embryonic democratic structures. National dialogue will also have to form committees focusing on issues such as reconciliation, prison abuse and human rights violations. Southerners have often stressed that the absence of public debate on the war of 1994 has aggravated unrest in their provinces. In the future decentralisation might be the only way to avoid further declarations of independence in the south, and is favoured by many Yemenis who repudiate the imposition of unelected governors by the central authority. The existing quasi-autonomous provinces may provide the building blocks for a federal constitutional system.

There is a looming constitutional crisis because the ailing president has not yet issued a decree authorising his deputy to act on his behalf; so the latter has been unable to curb the power of Saleh’s son and nephews. A negotiated transition of power, the UN’s central concern, may require those men as well as Gen. Ali Muhsin and members of the al-Ahmar family to leave the country temporarily. Since the cabinet’s dismissal on 20 March, no new government has been formed. The achievement of a political settlement among key players and transition to a representative government thus remains one of Yemen’s greatest challenges. Some Yemeni diplomats have argued that the vice president should remain caretaker for a year because authorising anyone to elect the members of an interim government would be highly contentious.

The current impasse and the success of the transitional council in Benghazi may have inspired Yemeni protest leaders to take matters into their own hands. A day before the 33rd anniversary of Saleh’s rule on 17 July, they announced a 17-member transitional presidential council. The council is expected to appoint a shadow cabinet of technocrats and to select a committee which is to draft a new constitution. Support for the council has been expressed by all governorates. This bold announcement by youth leaders reflects their demand for a civilian government and for being duly implicated in the political process. The plan is a challenge to both the government and the parliamentary opposition which has held back naming their own candidates. Serious disagreement between the Joint Meeting Parties and youth leaders would further weaken an already disunited opposition. Since the council has limited legitimacy and there is no timetable for a transition of power, a negotiated settlement under international auspices might provide a better solution. The government has dismissed the declaration of the council as a coup, and the JMP have announced the formation of a “National Council for the Forces of the Revolution”. Saleh’s loyalists may use the declaration as a pretext to discredit the opposition or even to justify the use of violence against protesters. A couple of days after the council was announced, Central Security forces broke up demonstrations in its favour, killing and injuring participants. Some members of the extra-parliamentary opposition have warned that initiating a council prior to the regime’s downfall might lead to a repetition of events in Libya.

Confronted with two choices — radical revolution or negotiated settlement — the majority of the opposition has agreed that violence must be avoided at all costs and that Saleh’s ouster is imperative. Much lip service has been paid to democratic change. The current power struggle occurs above all within the country’s political elite (all members of the Hashid confederation) whose relationship has been marked by both shared interests and rivalries. Even though they belong to different political parties, their conflict is driven by interests rather than ideologies. Yemenis often use the language of kinship when commenting upon their rivalry. “Gen. Ali Muhsin defected once he understood that Saleh’s ship was sinking”, one of his advisors explained, “He wants to maintain power within the family (he is related to the president) and tribe (Sanhan, a subtribe of Hashid).” Once Saleh had begun to reduce Islah’s influence and Hamid al-Ahmar supported Saleh’s rival candidate in the 2006 elections, competition between Saleh’s and Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar’s sons in the economic domain took on a political dimension. After “brotherly” relations had come under severe strain Sheikh Abdullah, departing from Yemen temporarily, proclaimed he was “leaving [Yemen] to President Saleh and his sons” (7).

The clashes between fighters commanded by the two men’s sons in May 2011 were the deadliest expression of their rivalry, once again demonstrating Saleh’s inclination to weaken or eliminate his opponents rather than to find political solutions. The Ahmars’ support — or lack of it - for the last rulers of the imamate (overthrown in 1962) decided their fate. The Ahmar family has had political aspirations since the late 1950s. During a period of absence of the imam, the supreme leader, Hashid tribesmen roamed the streets of Sana shouting that Hamid (Sheikh Abdullah’s brother) would succeed him to the throne. Hamid and his father were later executed. As the main sponsors of the protests and commanders of a huge militia, their descendants may yet determine Saleh’s destiny. However, they have alienated many tribal leaders in the northern provinces. Hashid’s auxiliary role in the Sadah war was unpopular among them. Only two were willing to support the Ahmar’s recent battle with Ahmad’s guards. A request for help was turned down by the Huthi leadership — an indication of the wide gaps separating members of the opposition.

Hamid al-Ahmar claims not to be seeking power, but he is widely perceived as hugely ambitious. Many southerners, who accuse the president, his family and the Hashid tribe of having discriminated against them while exploiting the south’s resources for personal gain, may also be unwilling to support him. Aden professionals tend to disapprove of the power of tribal leaders in the country, arguing that they provide obstacles to the creation of national solidarity and that independent state institutions cannot be built as long as they remain influential. By stating Haydar al-Attas’s name first on the list of members of the transition council, with the prospect of becoming its head, youth leaders are likely to have aimed at placating southerners. Al-Attas, a former head of state of the PDRY who does not favour secession, lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.

With respect to the turmoil at its southern border, the kingdom, with its several power centres, seems to be at a loss as to which steps to take. It has long been weary of Saleh and has keenly endorsed the PGCC (An incomplete acronym was completed: PGCC) plan. However, by allowing Yemeni television to conduct an interview with him in front of the Yemeni flag at his hospital in Riyadh on 7 July, the Saudis indicated that they still treat him as a statesman representing his country. They are not inclined to promote democracy in Yemen and are opposed to youth leaders’ participation in the political process for fear that it might give impetus to demands for greater civic participation among their own population. The Saudis fear total disintegration of the Yemeni state as well as militant jihadis bent on overthrowing the kingdom. Their desire for a stable Yemen which, however, is not strong and independent enough to curtail its influence in the country, provides a significant policy challenge for them. In the light of recent attempts by the PGCC (An incomplete acronym was completed: PGCC) to flex its military muscle by incorporating Morocco and Jordan into the organisation, in the long term Gulf countries may come to consider Yemen a potential strategic asset of use in fending off internal or external challengers.

The Saudis consider Yemen their own backyard, and whether or not they can maintain its patronage network will depend on who is in charge in Sana. By linking patronage to demands for promoting their brand of Islam and for fighting the Huthis in the northern parts of the country (8), the Saudis have raised the spectre of sectarian violence in an already volatile area which since 2010 has made enormous efforts towards self-pacification. As far as the current power struggle in Yemen is concerned, they are favourably disposed towards Gen. Ali Muhsin and Hamid al-Ahmar. They seem not to categorise Islah like other Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parties in Egypt and Gaza. Presumably the Saudis, who have made generous financial contributions to Islah, assume that it will remain loyal to them. But in the long run, the idea of a government headed by Muslims who might assert their independence, rivalry or even opposition to the kingdom may not seem such a palatable option. Surely Saudi Arabia would, above all, favour the establishment of a Sunni monarchy at its southern border. Yet in Yemen, there is little historical precedent for it.

Yemen is at the most critical junction since the overthrow of the imamate in the north and British rule in the south. Tawakkul Karman has recently spoken of its “unfinished revolution” (New York Times, 18 June 2011). Yemeni citizens are anxiously asking where and when it will end, and what price they will have to pay for it to succeed. Shortly after the explosion at Saleh’s compound, one of his political advisors ended a long discussion about Yemen’s future trajectories with a wry comment: “I feel sorry for the one who will succeed him. There’s nothing left for him in the country.” Even if the transfer of power comes about peacefully, the conflux of political and economic challenges might yet overwhelm Saleh’s successor.

* Gabriele vom Bruck is senior lecturer in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is the author of Islam, Memory and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005.


(1) D. Filkins, “After the uprising”, The New Yorker, 11 April 2011, pp. 38-39.

(2) In North Yemen, the religiously sanctioned imamate preceded the republic proclaimed in 1962.

(3) In 1990 Yemen refused to support the UN Security Council resolution calling for the removal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia punished Yemen severely by expelling most of its labour force whose remittances had proved vital to the economy.

(4) Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar is not related to the Ahmar family. Hamid al-Ahmar is one of the sons of Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar, head of the Hashid confederation until 2007 and founder of the Islah party. Hamid is one of the most successful businessmen in Sana.

(5) Britain, the largest European donor, spent £25.5m in FY 2009-2010; the United Arab Emirates announced £600m. US military and security assistance rose from $5m in 2006 to $150m in 2010; economic and humanitarian aid from $20m to $50m (M. Ottaway and C. Boucek, “Stabilizing a failing state”, in C. Boucek and M. Ottaway, eds., Yemen on the brink, 2010, pp. 98-99).

(6) On this issue see Lisa Wedeen, Peripheral visions, 2008.

(7) S. Phillips, Yemen’s Democracy Experiment in Regional Perspective, 2008, p.164-5.

(8) R. Worth, “Yemen on the brink of hell”, The New York Times, 20 July 2011.


http://mondediplo.com/blogs/when-will-yemen-s-night-really-end

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