After nearly three months of youth-led popular protests, defections by top generals, ambassadors and senior members of his government, Yemen's longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh looks decidedly beleaguered.
Earlier this week, American officials, who have previously backed him, discreetly admitted his rule is “untenable.” Even his most loyal backers, including members of his own tribe and longtime aid donors, including Saudi Arabia, are now ushering him toward the exit. Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, tightened the screws further late this week, telling the state news agency that a coalition of Gulf States hoped “to reach a deal with the Yemeni president to step down.”
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Not that the president hasn’t tried hard to quell the unrest. At first, he tried a charm offensive, slashing income taxes, raising military salaries and promising he’d step down at the end of his term in 2013. Then, he switched to harder tactics, allowing government forces to violently crack down on the protesters. Since neither strategy has worked, one may wonder how he remains in office. One reason can be found in the recent—and so far failed—negotiations between Saleh and the Yemeni opposition, a loose coalition of Islamists, Socialists and Nasserites that Saleh has described at various points as “Houthis”—Shia Muslim insurgents—and “drug dealers.”
One major bone of contention between the two sides concerns not the embattled president himself but the still undecided fate of his family whose tentacles reach into every corner of Yemeni society and business. Having ruled the country for more than three decades, (he came to power when his predecessor was assassinated by way of an exploding suitcase,) Saleh has anointed family members to powerful positions within the army and government institutions.
His eldest son Ahmed, a taller and scrawnier version of his father, commands the U.S.-funded and trained Republican Guard that comprise 30,000 men as well as the country’s Special Forces, which controls all the entrances to the capital Sana’a. His nephews, Amar, Yahya and Tariq are in charge of the country’s national security, central security, counterterrorism units as well as the Presidential Guard. His half-brother Mohammed is head of the Air Force. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A further 32 members of Saleh’s family, many of whom also have mass land holdings and own much of the nation's businesses, are scattered throughout the upper echelons of the government and the security services.
In one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, where the average annual income hovers around $2,200, and more than a third of the population lives below the national poverty line, the unrest has also meant sharp spikes in prices for food and fuel, raising concerns about a humanitarian disaster.
That Saleh’s family is enriching itself on the backs of the impoverished population is a major part of the continuing political crisis—the “family problem” as one opposition member calls it,
“Saleh knows he’s on his way out but, while still at the negotiating table, wants certain guarantees. Chief among those is that his sons and nephews won't be shut out of the military and politics after he quits,” says Mohammed Al-Qahdi, a prominent member of Yemen's ruling party, who resigned 10 days ago and has since survived two assassination attempts.
The opposition demands that Saleh disband his family-run institutions, including the security services, so that they function “according to the constitution and not nepotism.” But Saleh has so far dismissed those demands.
The young protesters on the dusty streets of Sana’a have also protested Saleh’s nepotism. Banners feature the names and faces of 32 officials, all of them the president’s relatives and in-laws, with the word Irhal—go—scrawled in thick red marker across their foreheads.
“It’s not just Ali we’re after—it’s the whole clan,” says Mahmoud Al-Faysi, a 22-year-old protester from the outskirts of Sana’a who is eking out a living by ferrying protesters between Sana’a university and the center of town on the back of his battered motorbike. “That family has pillaged our country for the past three decades. Do they think we’ll just let the others off the hook?”
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has been pressing Saleh to investigate two months of swirling violence which has left at least 125 protesters dead. Nearly half of those died on March 18, dubbed “Bloody Friday,” when baltigiya, plain-clothed government supporters, carried out a co-ordinated rooftop sniper attack on protesters camped in tents outside Sana’a University.
"The strongmen at the top cannot be allowed to just shift quietly into the sidelines,” says Adel Al-Surabi, a 23-year-old medical student, who has become a de facto spokesman for the young demonstrators. “The protesters want to know who killed their fellows ... who committed those crimes ... They want to know whether the perpetrators were the president, his relatives or any one of Saleh's officials.”
American officials, already anxious over what Yemen might look like post-Saleh, are no doubt pondering the fate of his relatives, especially his nephew Yahya, who heads Yemen’s highly trained counterterrorism unit, a force they’ve been funding and training for the past five years in the fight against al Qaeda in the country.
"President Saleh's immediate family has played a leading role in the campaign against the terrorist organization, and, for most of this spring, the U.S. has been worried that any change in power at the top would allow [Al Qaeda] more room to operate,” says Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen. “In the coming months, the U.S. is going to be forced to re-evaluate how it is pursuing its war.”
American rhetoric, meanwhile, is catching up to the possibility of a Yemen without Saleh or his cronies. Earlier this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “Our position with regards to working with the government of Yemen on counterterrorism efforts is that it is not—and has not been—focused on one person. Nor should it be.”