On Monday, in scenes reminiscent of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974, protesters on the streets in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, handed out flowers to soldiers and posed with them to have their photographs taken. Earlier that day, Major-General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, commander of the first armoured division and head of the north-west military zone, had declared his support for the protestors in the wake of Friday’s crackdown by the security forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which left at least 52 people dead. Four other high-ranking military officers have also announced their support for the protesters in recent days and the soldiers, along with tanks and armoured vehicles, have now been deployed by Mohsen on the streets of the capital to protect the protesters.
The defence minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed claimed that despite these defections the president still had the support of the army, yet the situation is extremely volatile with support for the embattled president rapidly eroding across the country. The defecting soldiers join more than 15 foreign ambassadors, including the ambassador to the United Nations, China, Egypt and Germany who have resigned in recent days over the heavy-handed security crackdowns. President Saleh, who has offered a considerable number of concessions in the last few weeks, including the offer of a new constitution, has declared a 30-day state of emergency, sacked his entire cabinet and announced that he is willing to step down at the end of the year. Yet the protesters will accept nothing other than his immediate resignation, having seen many broken promised in the past.
Despite the mounting pressure against him, President Saleh still retains strong support in certain sectors of Yemeni society and the military. As the wave of protest and revolution spread across the Middle East, his supporters were quick to seize the initiative and, realising its symbolic significance in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, occupied Tahrir Square in the capital Sanaa, setting up camp before protesters could claim the site. Consequently, the protesters set up their own camp in Taghyeer Square, out the front of Sanaa University. The name means “change.” Since establishing themselves there, they have been subject to numerous deadly attacks by security forces and plainclothes thugs.
Many both inside and outside of Yemen believe the president is finished. The editor-in-chief of Yemen Post, Hakim Al Masmari, speaking to Al Jazeera said that “For Ali Mohsen to announce this, it is a clear sign to president Saleh that the game is over and that he must step down now.” Ali Mohsen was described, in a 2005 US Diplomatic cable, as “Saleh’s iron fist.” He is said to control over 50% of the country’s military assets and has long been seen as the second most powerful man in Yemen. It is for this reason that, despite his assertion of support, he is unlikely to be trusted by the protesters.
“Ali Mohsen Saleh will not be accepted by the youth,” said Masmari, “He is also very corrupt; he is not respected here in Yemen.”
The regional response has also been strong. On Tuesday, The Arab League strongly condemned “the crimes committed against civilians,” and called for “concerted efforts to safeguard national unity and the right to free expression.” The League re-emphasised the need for dialogue and “democratic methods” to address the demands of the people.
Even the United States, long a supporter of the Yemeni president, has become increasingly uncomfortable with its former protégé. A willing accomplice in the US government’s practice of “extraordinary rendition”, the Yemeni regime has allowed the United States military to conduct actions against suspected Al Qaeda militants and been a beneficiary of their financial and military aid. Stopping short of calling for Saleh’s departure, the Obama administration has emphasised the need to allow peaceful protest, to engage in genuine dialogue and has refused to accept the president’s paper-thin excuse that the deaths of protesters were caused by a backlash from local residents, in effect, laying the blame Saleh himself.
France has again taken the initiative as the first western power to call for the removal of the president. Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, speaking in Paris, said that the president’s resignation was “unavoidable.” He has made clear France’s support for the pro-democracy protesters.
President Saleh has also faced calls for his resignation from various tribal leaders. Whilst tribal affiliations are strong in Yemen, and President Saleh has made a point of including leaders from different tribes in the running of the state to ensure loyalty to the ruling party, the party is not broadly representative of the tribes and nor are they especially loyal to the ruling party. The leaders of the opposition also have broad tribal representation, but again those affiliated leaders are not necessarily seen as representative of the tribes. Saleh has tried to rally tribal leaders, and whilst numerous sheiks have pledged their support, he has been abandoned by many others and criticised for encouraging militarisation and polarisation.
Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political commentator, points out that strong tribal affiliation applies to perhaps only 20% of the population, with the rest being peasants or city-dwellers who lack strong tribal links and identities. http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/peopleandpower/2011/03/201131612514814636.html The tribes are “hardly monolithic” he writes, and loyalties are not as clear cut as some might expect. The dominant tribe in the north, the Hashed tribal confederacy, from which Saleh and his family come, have members in both the ruling party and the opposition. Even they have issued a statement asking the president to leave peacefully and accede to the demands of the protesters. The larger Bakeel tribal confederacy have ostensibly sided with the regime, but there is significant division within the confederacy and they too have members in the opposition parties. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Houthis in the north, a group who has, periodically, been fighting a civil war against Sanaa since 2004, have sided with the protesters. The long-neglected south of the country, where a strong secessionist movement has existed since losing the 1994 civil war, has, remarkably, put aside their secessionist agenda to support the opposition.
As to the nature of the opposition, it consists of several political parties, the two largest being the Islamist ‘Islaah’ party and the Yemeni Socialist Party, along with Baathists, Nasserists and an assortment of smaller parties. Ironically, in a country in which women have few rights and are heavily marginalised, the most prominent activist is a woman, Tawakkol Karman, founder of the group Women Journalists Without Chains. She has been pivotal in organising the protesters in Taghyeer Square and ensuring that protesters do not bring weapons to demonstrations.
So where does all this leave Yemen?
Yemen has long been a troubled nation. It ranks 149th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index, only a third of the population has access to safe drinking water and most people are poor. Literacy amongst women is a shocking 29%, whilst for men it is more than double at 69%. Roughly 35% of the population is urban, whilst the rest are rural. The country has a very small middle class and unemployment is high across the board. In Aden, the largest city of the south, youth unemployment stands at 40%, though that is only the official statistic. Access to employment is largely based on favouritism, bribes and political or familial connections. The country suffers from terrible corruption, lack of equality, failure to enforce the law and little oversight or regulation. It is estimated that the country’s oil reserves will run out in 2017.
The state in Yemen is especially weak. It lacks much of the hard and soft infrastructure required to sustain a strong civil system, and any hope of moving forward in Yemen should a political transition take place, will, to all intents and purposes, require building a state system from the ground up.
The country has also been neglected by the western media, whose attention has largely remained focussed on Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Despite increasingly strong condemnations, very little real pressure has been applied against Saleh, unsurprisingly drawing cries of hypocrisy against the international community. Even more so than was the case with Egypt, the United States has been extremely cautious in its criticism of Saleh’s regime, despite the killings. There is little likelihood of any intervention taking place, especially considering the divided, mixed and volatile nature of the country. It seems the world is watching and waiting for an internal solution, which appears increasingly likely.
The question is, however, what will that solution be? Neither the tribes nor political parties will want a civil war, though this bleak prospect remains. Further military and diplomatic defections are likely, in the long or short term, to result in the downfall of President Saleh, but there is much uncertainty about what happens next. Will there be a genuine democratic process, or will it result in a military dictatorship, a fear the president has been keen to promote? And if a democratic transition takes place, how successful will it be in avoiding the taint of corruption or being hi-jacked by religious extremists? It seems that in this case, the world is happy to wait and see.
Originally published in New Matilda on 23/03/11.