article

09.02.11

Yemen’s Shaky Arab Spring

Opposition to the ailing President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains fierce, but the disparate coalition of forces seeking his ouster is starting to splinter, explains Tom Finn.

As the Arab Spring staggers into its ninth month, most of the world’s attention remains fixed on North Africa, where the 42-year rule of  Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi is rapidly succumbing to a western-backed militia of rebel fighters. Others are held rapt by events in the Levant, where the isolated Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, continues to try and crush the country’s burgeoning protest movement sending his country into a deeper bloody quagmire.

In the midst of all the mayhem, the uprising in Yemen–an acutely impoverished and deeply tribal country bordering oil-giant Saudi Arabia–has been all but forgotten. A grinding political stalemate and a virtual media blackout has meant that Yemen, which only a few months ago looked set to be the third Arab nation (after Tunisia and Egypt) to overthrow its leader this year, has slipped back into the shadows.

It was the precipitous downfall of Egypt’s aged president, Hosni Mubarak, in February that first jerked Yemen’s revolt into life as tens of thousands of youthful dissenters poured onto the grubby streets of the capital to yell for an end to the 33-year rule of their mercurial president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the weeks that followed, hundreds were shot dead and thousands maimed, as Saleh’s troops moved in with water cannons, tear gas, batons, and bullets, to try and put an early lid on the insurrection. The regime’s brutality prompted a wave of mass defections as senior army generals, party officials, and even leading members of Saleh’s own tribe jumped ship, declaring their support for the opposition and leaving the regime teetering on the edge of collapse. But six months later, Yemen is stuck in an ominous limbo: caught between a seemingly irremovable president and a fractured opposition still struggling to form a transitional government.

When Saleh was airlifted to Saudi Arabia in early June for medical treatment after a suspected booby-trap explosion ripped through the mosque in his presidential compound, many assumed it would mark the end of the road for the strongman. It was said that Saudi princes and U.S. diplomats (who’d been quietly nudging Saleh towards the door) would ensure that Saleh lived out the rest of his days in a comfortable apartment in Riyadh so that Yemen could press on with its search for a way out of its raging political turmoil. It was not to be. Rather than signing a deal to step down drawn up by the Gulf monarchies, Saleh, a master of political brinkmanship, opted instead to cling to power from his hospital bed and hand over the reins temporarily to his deputy, Abd al Rab al Mansour al Haddi. Perhaps tellingly, Haddi, who’s seen by most in Yemen as a politically crippled figure, has continued to work from his office in parliament, while Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, has taken up residence in the presidential palace to hold the fort for his father. Saleh’s sidestepping has left Yemen’s determined protesters in the lurch, amplifying growing fears grows that all their efforts might have been in vain.

“Saleh’s departure has taken the wind out of our sails,” Majid Al-Asri, a 23-year-old engineering student turned protest leader, told me at yet another Friday rally in the heart of Change Square, a sprawling shanty town whose tentacles stretch for miles into the dusty streets of the capital. Despite the stalemate, Majid along with thousands of others have opted to stick it out all summer, living, eating and sleeping in makeshift tents under the sweltering Arabian sun. “Like the Egyptians, we’re trying to see our revolution through to the end, but we [the opposition] still have many obstacles to overcome.”

In the absence of a president and a properly functioning government, the disparate groups who’ve been rallying against Saleh have set about the daunting job of forming an inclusive national council to consolidate their fledgling movement and steer the country through a political transition. This is no small task. The factions include, first, Yemen’s formal opposition, the JMP, (largely dominated by the Islamic party Islah). Then there is a grassroots, non-partisan, youthful pro-democracy movement (those who first took to the streets back in February). As well there are secessionists from Yemen’s oil-exporting south and Houthi Shia rebels from the northern province of Sa’ada. Both of these elements want guarantees of autonomy or at the very least to know that they will not face the same levels of discrimination and marginalization in a new configuration as they did in the last.

The fact that all these groups have been able to unite under the rubric of a broad anti-Saleh opposition is a truly remarkable feat and will be of great disquiet to Saleh, who has ruled for decades by dividing his opponents and keeping the country in a semi-chaotic state. But with the president currently out of the picture and therefore no common enemy to rally around, the cracks in this fragile alliance are beginning to show. Last week, 23 influential politicians detached themselves from the 143 member national council formed last week by the JMP, claiming it did not fairly represent the “needs and aspirations” of those in the south. While there seems to be a general understanding amongst them all that no one of them can rule Yemen, there is the very real risk that if they do not soon deliver a blueprint for an inclusive future government then the whole thing could fall apart.

Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled Yemen for decades by dividing his opponents and keeping the country in a semi-chaotic state.

In the mean time, Saleh looks to gearing up for a dramatic return to his native land. In a televised speech from Riyadh last week broadcast live on Yemeni television, he remained as defiant as ever, telling his supporters that he would “never hand over power to opportunists, war lords, and smugglers of oil” and that he would “see them all soon in Sanaa.”

A sudden re-appearance by Saleh might help gel the slowly splintering opposition but it could just as easily spark civil war. When he left for Riyadh back in June, street battles were haunting the capital, as Saleh’s republican guard and rebel tribesmen loyal to Sadeq Al-Ahmar, (the croaky-voiced sheikh at the head of Yemen’s most influential tribe) fired mortars at each other over a heavily-populated residential area in the east of Sana’a. Al-Ahmar, who sided with the opposition back in March, recently swore “by God” that he would “never let Saleh rule again” and still has hundreds of his tribesmen armed to the teeth patrolling the streets of the capital.

On Tuesday the results of a three-month long investigation--carried out with the help of an FBI forensics team--into the bombing of Saleh’s palace will be released. The regime is expected to point the finger at Al-Ahmar and his men. But others believe that an attack of that precision and proximity to the president was more likely to have been the work of an insider. A friend of mine (he did not wish to be named) who works as an employee inside the president’s palace said he had reason to believe it was carried out by someone within the president’s inner circle. He talked of a new climate of fear reigning inside the palace and said that when he had tried to broach the topic with his colleagues they had begged him not to ask them for fear of being killed. “Saleh’s two predecessors were both assassinated. It’s no surprise to me that someone might have wanted him dead. He’s become a liability to almost everyone as he seems to determined to drag the country down with him.”

With the fall last week of Tripoli to the Libyan rebels, unrest has started to simmer again in Yemen. On Friday a group of 200 young men and women took to the streets of the southern city of Taiz for a midnight march to celebrate the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. Within minutes their demonstration had been violently dispersed. Chaos and confusion reigned as troops from the republican guard, an elite force headed by President Saleh’s son, Ahmed, opened up on them with water cannons and green pistols loaded with rubber bullets. “With President Saleh gone, our revolution has entered a new stage,” Taha al-shami, a protest-leader from Taiz, shouted down the phone over the crackle of gunfire. “Things are far from over for here, in fact this is just the beginning, watch us!”