A Yemeni finale or another of Saleh’s crescendos?

President Saleh's response to the protests has increased in violence, causing him some major defections, yet he has clung to power. International supporters are concerned that an end to Saleh’s era may result in chaos, possibly allowing al-Qa’ida room, however the tribes of Yemen are likely to prevent this as it threatens their interests and way of life.
James Spencer
13 April 2011

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of Yemen, has proved himself to be a consummate political tactician from his earliest years. The illiterate soldier got an education, fought his way to a commission and thence to power. He has since played off, co-opted and compromised his political opponents (and allies) in a way which would have Machiavelli nodding approvingly. Ruthlessness, too, is alleged – rumours persist of fortuitous fatal accidents – even outright assassination - befalling stubborn political enemies.

However this network of patronage and balances seems finally to have enmeshed the great survivor, giving him little political room to manoeuvre as the greatest crisis of his career breaks. Having given all the ground he can afford, President Saleh and his regime are likely to resort to ever increasing levels of violence to retain their positions.

Yet as recently as early January, the Joint Meeting Parties (an umbrella group of 6 opposition parties) alleged that Saleh was confident of changing the Constitution to allow him to be president for life, with the aim of handing over the Republic to his son. This came in the context of a gradually (though at the time seemingly controllable) deteriorating domestic situation in which the central government faced increasing unrest both in the north and the south. Hirak (the Southern Mobility Movement) had led frequent protests across the former South since 2005, in protest against their political and economic marginalisation after the Civil War of 1994. These protests had been controlled by a mixture of overt and secret policing of varying intensity. (With that exception, mass civic protest was rare and usually over specific issues, such as the petrol riots in July 2005, during which 12 people were killed.) Instead, tribal custom was to take a hostage as a bargaining chip and to denote seriousness. When that failed, groups – such as the Zaydi revivalist Huthis - would mount an insurrection. In the case of the Huthis, their main demands (an end to government enabled Salafism and corruption) have gone unmet, and the rebellion has lasted for six seasons of fighting.

Yet when Tunisia spontaneously combusted in mid-January 2011, student-led demonstrations sprang up in Sana’a. (Like most Arab countries, Yemen has a huge and poorly educated youth population with few economic prospects.) Initially, the protests were relatively amicable and checked by the simple ploy of hiring large numbers of tribesmen mostly from the Hashid Confederation (to which Saleh belongs) to occupy the central Tahrir Square so that protestors had little space in which to demonstrate – a nuanced and non-aggressive tactic. But the protests did not dissipate, and indeed grew both in size and intensity. They were met with a combination of police lines and baltajiyya (rent-a-mob), ultimately resulting in violent clashes with the police. With concern rising among politicians on all sides, Saleh quickly offered pay raises to government employees, a tax-break to civilians, and fee-amnesties and an employment fund to students. Nevertheless, the protests continued.

On 2nd February, Saleh declared that he would not stand for re-election in 2013, and that he was against inherited rule. Given his track record of unkept promises, the people did not believe him – and called for him to go straight away. Throughout February, the demonstrations (and counter-demonstrations) increased in locations, participants, stridency – and deaths, ultimately reaching Ta’iz, the intellectual capital of north Yemen.

Concerned, Saleh made the rounds of the political, military and tribal elites, offering presents and soliciting support. This appears to have angered Husayn al-Ahmar (one of the brothers of the paramount Shaykh of the Hashid tribal confederation) who felt that Saleh had trampled on his turf. Al-Ahmar quit the ruling General People’s Congress party on 26th February and joined one of his other brothers in opposition (cynics noted that he had done this before.) A minister and several other politicians also resigned the GPC whip during February, most in protest at the way the demonstrations had been handled. Later, Abdal-Majid al-Zindani, a Salafi cleric and periodic ally of the President, declared that he was with the people, and that an Islamic state was coming to Yemen. Protests continued.

Possibly as significant as the defections was the beginning of co-ordination between previously disparate groups: the Huthis in the north and Hirak in the south linked up with the people in the central mountains – a uniting front that presents a credible threat to the regime. On the 28th February, the President announced a government of National Unity – which was rejected by the wary JMP.

The JMP – the mostly loyal opposition – have struggled to ride the whirlwind of the people, sometimes even to keep up with it. On 3rd March, the JMP proposed a way forward whose five points were: for President Saleh to leave office by the year-end, for his relatives to leave their posts before then; for the right of peaceful protest; inquiries into the crackdowns; and revised electoral procedures. The people were not impressed with what they saw as a political fix. Regardless, Saleh asserted his intention to remain in power for the remainder of his tenure.

By 8th March, the protests had spread to Dhamar, home of several Cabinet ministers, and anti-Government graffiti was seen in the President’s own village, Bayt al-Ahmar. On the same day, the Army were deployed onto the streets for the first time. On 10th March, Saleh announced “the transition from presidential system of government to parliamentary system of government, and to move all powers to the elected government by the end of 2011.” Too late, said the opposition, while the people re-iterated their call for the President to go immediately. Protests continued: 100,000 turned out at Sana’a University on 11th March.

So what’s next?

In the short term, it is likely that President Saleh will attempt to ride out the calls for an immediate departure with assurances that he will go at the end of his term. While the northern element of the JMP may be satisfied with achieving more advantageous positions, the people, the Huthis and Hirak are unlikely to accept a continuity of the same system. A violent confrontation is thus increasingly likely.

Ominously, internet connectivity – and thus the people’s communications – has been temporarily cut off in Sana’a. On 14th March, four foreign journalists were expelled, a Yemeni journalist working in English received a threatening message, and other English language websites have been disrupted. Threateningly, officials have branded attacks on political and security personnel in Ma’rib and al-Jawf provinces as the work of JMP supporters, rather than the more likely continuation of a tribal grievance. Increasingly violent suppression has continued, with pro-government groups inflicting hundreds of injuries in Ta’iz and Hudaydah (the main Red Sea port), and shooting dozens of protestors in Sana’a. For Saleh (and his Sanhani cabal) have no way forward other than to try to stay in power. The score-settling alone (not to mention the loss of assets) accrued from 30 years rule means that they cannot afford not to stay in power. Thus the regime will likely increase the use of force to suppress dissent and bear down on journalists covering it, as they have shown against the Huthis and Hirak over the last five years.

Saleh will not go down without a fight. Unlike Ben Ali and Mubarak, he has ensured that the military and security forces are controlled by close, loyal family members. Further, although the role of the tribes has reduced over recent decades, Yemen remains a tribally based society, in which loyalty to one’s leader often trumps – indeed replaces – one’s political view. When the tribes’ arsenals are taken into account, they become not only a potent political influence, but a capable and rapidly mobilised military force – as they showed in the February 1979 conflict with South Yemen. Saleh has been assiduous in courting tribal leaders during the past few months. Further, Washington sees Saleh as a critical ally against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), an organisation recently described comparatively to Congress as “probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland." This has compromised Obama’s ability to speak out more forcefully against Saleh’s repression.

After Saleh?

The opposition are united in one thing – to get rid of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his immediate family. Beyond that there is no agreement. Indeed, divisions abound in Yemen, and the current struggle is actually many struggles:

  • the intra-regime competition to succeed Saleh;
  • the arguments among the political elite:
    • the al-Ahmars vs the rest of the JMP over replacing the system, or just the regime;
    • between the JMP parties over the future direction of Yemen – tribal / religious, or southern / secular;
  • an intra-Islah debate over Islah’s identity (whether more tribal or more religious);
  • intra-Hirak as to whether to devolve, federate or secede;

and finally, the universal conflict between the people and the political elite.

President Saleh has hitherto successfully played upon these internal divisions, and on the fact that many in Yemen – particularly within the politico-economic elite – fear “Post-Saleh” chaos (and loss of privilege). Similarly, he has exploited foreigners’ (read U.S.) fears that Post-Saleh is chaos, confusion and al-Qa’ida. Nevertheless, while these divisions have been temporarily subsumed in the struggle to oust Saleh, they will quickly re-emerge post-Saleh.

This does not necessarily mean that the country will not be able to be managed. Those who believe that a post-Saleh Yemen necessarily means chaos and terrorism often also argue that the Government’s writ runs thin outside the cities. Indeed, while Yemen's formal institutions are relatively weak, its informal ones are strong. The tribes – which effectively constitute independent states (with their own laws, courts, militia, social security, etc) - manage their own affairs, and will outlast the Saleh government, as they have every other central government, including the Ottoman and British Empires.

Moreover, AQAP’s physical capability is relatively limited in Yemen; as happened in Iraq, if the tribes are empowered and encouraged they can deal with the issue effectively. The government has paid some tribes to conduct anti-al-Qa’ida operations, while other tribes do so for their own reasons: there have been two recent tribal killings of jihadis, and this is likely to increase as AQAP find that it is one thing to try to overthrow the Yemeni state - and quite another to try it on with the Yemeni tribes. Already, the bigoted ideology of the salafi jihadis has begun to bring them into conflict with the heavily armed, traditionalist Zaydi Shi’a tribesmen of the mountains.

Given the tribesmen’s plentiful weaponry, developed legal system and vigorous independence, this means that it is highly unlikely that Yemen will either collapse into chaos, or become al-Qa’idastan merely because there is a weak federal government. In the event that the regime is ejected, it is likely that President Saleh’s tangled skein of alliances will come to pieces, and a re-balancing of political forces will occur. However, given Yemen’s remarkable affinity for decision by consensus, together with the (currently) reducing importance of the tribes, it is unlikely that civil war will result. Rather, a more technocratic, more democratic system will emerge, with more power devolved to the regions.

The challenges which confront Yemen remain daunting: oil and water rapidly declining, population and unemployment rapidly increasing. With a more transparent, more accountable government (and pragmatic assistance from the international community), both these domestic concerns, and foreign terrorist threats, are likely to be managed more effectively and to the satisfaction of more parties than is currently the case. Post-Saleh does not necessarily mean chaos in Fortunate Arabia.

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