Yemen on the brink: The implications of the uprising

Published in The Gulf
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By Afro-Middle East Centre

The uprising in Yemen that started in January 2011 was largely inspired by the popular protests that swept the region - in particular the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings that respectively saw the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Despite certain socio-economic and political causal similarities to other uprisings in the region, the Yemeni protests reflect the contextual particularities of Yemen. As such, any reading of the uprising needs to be located and understood from within the complexities of that country's political and cultural milieu.

Trajectory of the Yemeni uprising

The uprising, that now seems to be on the verge of civil war, was initially ignited by the democratic aspirations of young demonstrators protesting for their dignity and rights. Grass-roots demonstrators had gathered in protest against high levels of unemployment, rampant corruption, authoritarian rule characterised by nepotism, and government's proposed constitutional amendments that would see President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has already been at the helm of the state for three decades, remain president for life.

The protesters' initial demand for political reforms later escalated to the demand that Saleh relinquishes power. The president's attempts at forming a unity government with the opposition, and at conceding certain political reforms - in particular, his avowal to stand-down as president at the end of his term in 2013, and not to confer power to his son, Ahmed Saleh - were rejected by opposition groups which demanded his immediate departure. Despite mass governmental and military defections, Saleh reneged - three times - on a transition of power agreement mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), that had been signed by the opposition in May. The agreement sought to offer Saleh - and his family and inner-circle - immunity from prosecution in return for his giving up power, and the transferral of power, within one month, to his vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi.

A failed assassination attempt on Saleh on 3 June, most likely orchestrated by the leadership of the Hashid tribal federation - a federation that Saleh himself is tribally linked to but that has recently pitted itself against the government - saw an injured Saleh spirited away to Saudi Arabia to convalesce. In his absence, Hadi assumed the role of acting president. Although Saleh has, more than two months later, still not returned to Yemen and Hadi functions as president, Saleh insists on retaining his position. This has seen the country suspended in a state of political limbo. However, most likely under the coercion of his Saudi hosts and backed by the US, Saleh has recently hinted that, , he would enter into an agreement with the opposition concerning a transition of power, in an attempt to defuse the potential of civil war.

 The forces at play

To understand the distinctiveness of the Yemeni uprising, it is necessary to realise that Yemen is a fundamentally fractured and divided society. In addition, the country maintains much of its tribal character - with tribes and their federal alliances operating fairly autonomously of the government. However, it is noteworthy that tribal allegiances often are inseparable from governmental institutions and political parties.

Tribal opposition to Saleh is most potently represented by the two largest tribal federations: the Hashid and the Bakil. Both federations have expressed support for the protesters. Their declared support for the protesters ostensibly arises from the violence that characterised the military response to the protest on 18 March when soldiers opened fire and killed over fifty unarmed protesters. A more accurate reading would include understanding the political enmity between Saleh and the Hashid leadership, particularly the head of the Hashid tribal federation, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, and his brother Hamid, a leading figure in the largest opposition party that includes Islamist and tribal elements, the Islah Party. An arrest warrant issued against Sadiq al-Ahmar (he was to be charged with treason) on 26 May sparked clashes between the government and a Hashid militia, and this likely resulted in the attempt on Saleh's life on 3 June. A Saudi-brokered ceasefire on 4 June sought to halt the confrontation between troops loyal to Saleh and the Hashid militia. However, there is speculation that Saleh had stoked the conflict in an attempt to hold onto power, and to divert the focus from the popular protests onto a conflict between the state and leading tribal rivals.

Additionally, Yemen's political terrain before the uprising had also been characterised by violent disunity and insurgency - most markedly reflected by the Shi'a Houthi rebellion in the north (from 2004 - present); secessionist socialists in the south that re-gained momentum in 2007 after a failed secession attempt in 1994; and the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that has been active since 2009 after the merger between the Saudi and Yemeni franchises.

With Saudi paranoia about a strengthened Shi'a movement in the peninsula, and the implications and potential this might hold for Iran, the Saudis supported the government and tribal federations who opposed the insurgency in quelling the Houthi rebels. Yemen has long played a crucial role in the US 'war on terror', and both the US and Saudi Arabia have expressed concern for what the uprising in Yemen might mean for Yemeni Al-Qaeda operatives. In the context of the current uprising, Saleh, who received much counter-terrorism support and funding from the US to subdue this Al-Qaeda operation, resorted to posturing and scaremongering, claiming that his ousting would lead to a surge in militant fundamentalism. Suggestions are that the recent upsurge of operations by militants in the Arabian peninsula is a result of their exploiting the power vacuum that has resulted from both Saleh's absence and the uncertainty around Yemen's future. However, some have suggested that this development, in turn, has been exploited by Saleh who has presented himself - particularly to the US and Saudi Arabia - as the only person able to contain AQAP.

In the region, events in Yemen will most impact on Saudi Arabia. In line with its foreign policy of maintaining a regional balance of power, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as the counter-revolutionary force against the regional uprisings. The Saudis support the maintenance of the regional status quo, and this is threatened by the emergent democratic aspirations of its neighbours, and the ensuing instability that these aspirations have brought. Of particular concern to Saudi Arabia is the increasing likelihood of a failed state on its doorstep, and the implications that this would have with regards to AQAP's operations.

As the trajectory of the uprising in Yemen indicates, the initial popular protests inspired by the democratic aspirations of disenfranchised youth has largely been co-opted by political forces looking to exploit the space and instability created by this movement. This is clearly illustrated in the motley and expedient assemblage of Islamists, socialists, and tribal factions that comprises the opposition movement, most notably represented by a coalition of political parties - including the Islah party - in the form of the Joint Meetings Party (JMP). The JMP is an eclectic mix of opposition parties that is often plagued by divisions between and within the parties that make up the coalition.

Role of the military

The positioning of the military, and its declarations of loyalty, has been an important indicator of how the uprising might progress. The three most prominent military actors (and their loyalties) are:

  • The Republican Guard, led by the president's son Ahmed Saleh, that remains loyal to the incumbent president;

  • The First Armoured Division, led by the defector General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, that has presented itself as a protector - though not supporter - of the protesters; and

  • The militia of the Hashid Tribal Federation that is loyal to tribal chief Sadiq al-Ahmar. Importantly, Saleh still enjoys substantial support from the second most powerful group in the Hashid federation led by Sheikh Jalidan.

Early military defections, most notably by Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and Muhammed Ali Muhsin, commander of the Eastern Military district, have been the clearest indication that Saleh's hold on power is waning. Al-Ahmar, who is from the same Sanhan clan as Saleh, has traditionally been seen as a supporter of Saleh and was one of his most important military generals. His defection additionally suggests that the position of the Sanhan clan, that has traditionally held the monopoly on state institutions, particularly in the military, will continue after Saleh. Like the tribal federations, Ali Al-Ahmar's expedient defection was purportedly as a result of the military's use of fire on unarmed protesters. However, his support for the protesters has been selective. Despite the First Armoured Division being seen to protect protesters from loyalist troops, it has also prevented protesters from marching on Vice President Hadi's home.

Considering the proliferation of weapons in Yemen and the heavily-armed military factions, there have been relatively low levels of violence and a relatively low death toll throughout the period fo the uprising. This may be due to the overlapping of tribal and institutional loyalties, and indicates that although a protracted and bloody civil war cannot be ruled out, it is unlikely. However, if Saleh does not give in to Saudi and GCC pressure, and returns to Yemen, he might see violent repression as the only way to hang onto power, and this might open the door to a violent future.

 Where things are at, and where they might go

Saleh's injuries that saw him taken to Saudi Arabia to receive medical care raised hopes that this would spell his imminent departure from power. However, he continues to cling onto power despite pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia to step down, and despite Yemen, as a state, being on the brink of collapse.

Yemen's economy had been severely neglected under Saleh's rule. However, months of protests and a worsening security situation have left the economy - and country - in tatters. This, in conjunction with the power vacuum that allowed for a resurgence of militant groups, is seeing Yemen fast descending into a 'failed state' scenario.

With Yemen in a state of political limbo, and a president that is still clinging to power from afar, the protracted uprising has seen protesters lose much of their initial impetus and momentum. Although Saleh still has sizeable support in the country, a significant number of governorates (a reported five) are now out of his control, and the situation is looking increasingly precarious for the president.

His son Ahmed, who is seen as the family's guardian of power whilst his father has been recovering in Saudi Arabia has openly expressed support for efforts by Hadi and the opposition to find a solution, and Saleh, early in August, again hinted that he was willing to enter into the transition agreement mediated by the GCC. This agreement would see Hadi assuming command within thirty days of the signing the agreement, and the opposition forming a government of national unity that would be steered equally by the current ruling party and the opposition. The Saudi, GCC and US hope is that this will defuse any potential for a revitalisation of the protest, placate a divided opposition, avert civil war and the potential strengthening of AQAP, and maintain stability.

Considering the fractured nature of Yemeni society, it will be a challenge to ensure agreement for a presidential candidate, particularly a candidate that the popular protesters, the opposition, and the tribal leadership will agree upon. It is, however, likely that Saleh's successor will be vetted by the Saudis. However, if Saleh refuses to relinquish power, a highly militarised and divided Yemen may be plunged into a protracted civil war - something that its neighbour, Saudi Arabia, will be looking to avert at all costs. Already, with the government run by Hadi, villages on the outskirts of the city have been attacked by government forces.

As indicated above, one factor that could be decisive in determining the future will be the role of the military. With more than 100 members of the Republican Guard - which had previously been regarded as solidly behind Saleh - having defected to the protesters, it seems likely that the military will want to play the kind of role that the Egyptian military played during that country's uprising: not oppose the protesters, and not assist in the government's repression of the people. If we see more such defections, Saleh's political career will rapidly move to an end.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:48

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