Breaking point

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST



Yemen: The country appears to be on the brink of a civil war following the mortar attack that injured the President.

THE attack on the presidential palace on June 3, which injured the embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has taken Yemen's pro-democracy movement to a decisive phase. The contours of the end game after the rocket attack on the mosque inside the presidential palace, which killed four people and wounded several high-profile officials, are, however, far from clear. With heavy violence preceding and following the attack, there is a possibility that Yemen will slide into a civil war, though the duration or intensity of it is hard to predict. Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment a day after the attack. Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets to celebrate his departure.

The strike on the presidential palace followed an attack on the homes of two tribal leaders and an influential military general who had earlier defected from Saleh's camp. As fighting escalated, the homes of Hamid and Himyar, two brothers of the influential al-Ahmar family, were destroyed. Government forces also shelled the residence of the pro-opposition General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the influential commander of the First Mechanised Division, who also has well-known connections with the al-Ahmar family.

The wealthy al-Ahmar family, led by Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, has, during the months of the pro-democracy protests, emerged as Saleh's most powerful rival. The family commands the powerful Hashid tribe confederation. It has also been allegedly involved in bankrolling the massive pro-democracy protests seeking fundamental changes, which have mobilised hundreds of thousands of young people across the country.

Fighting in Sana'a, the capital, surged in end-May when government troops fired at Sheikh Sadeq's residence, a major affront in violation of the unwritten tribal code which prohibits targeting leaders' homes. The capital's Hassaba area, home to Ministries and official buildings, emerged as the epicentre of combat. Government forces also expanded the ambit of attacks by shelling the upscale southern Hadda district, where Yemen's elite, including senior officials, reside.

The al-Ahmar family has denied any responsibility for targeting Saleh in his palace. But Al Jazeera quoted Abdul Ghani Al-Iryani, a Sana'a-based political analyst, as saying that it was quite reasonable to assume that al-Ahmar's fighters were responsible for the strike. [The tribesmen] probably wanted him to know that [Saleh] can no longer attack them with impunity, and that they can reach him as he can reach them, Al-Iryani said.

The attack on the presidential palace has set the stage for an armed confrontation between Saleh's troops and the al-Ahmar tribesmen. However, it is far from certain that the government will have the upper hand. The fighters of the Hashid tribe confederation are well-armed and battle-hardened. Their strength derives in part from tradition and the culture of patronage that has been the hallmark of Saleh's 33-year rule.

Despite the presence of a standing army and security forces, the tribes in Yemen have not been obliged to disarm. This has greatly contributed to the proliferation of weapons, providing non-state actors, especially tribal groups, significant capacity to challenge the state. The attack on Sheikh Sadeq's home, which took place during a meeting of several sheikhs, not all of them from the Hashid tribe, has also led to inter-tribal consolidation. Two influential tribal groups, Bakil and Murad, decided, after the attack, to ally with the al-Ahmar family against President Saleh. But more importantly, the al-Ahmar clan, which includes Hamid al-Ahmar, founder of the influential Islamist Islah party, possesses solid external support from Yemen's powerful neighbour, Saudi Arabia.

Writing in Gulf News, a Dubai daily, editor-at-large Francis Matthew pointed out that Hamid al-Ahmar's challenge will be viewed favourably by Saudi Arabia, which has had a close relationship with his family for decades. He added: The Saudi leadership is the most concerned of all the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states that Yemen does not slip into chaos, and it will naturally back an alternative to Saleh based on northern leaders.

In the likely face-off with al-Ahmar, the Saleh regime will depend heavily on the elite Republican Guard, commanded by members of the family or other loyal supporters. The possession of sufficient stocks of heavy weaponry, including artillery guns and tanks, provides Saleh the initial advantage. The Yemeni Air Force, used on the outskirts of Sana'a recently to scatter tribal supporters of the al-Ahmar family wishing to enter the capital, is known to be loyal to the President. This will also encourage Saleh to take on his opponents, notwithstanding the negative symbolism associated with the use of warplanes to attack compatriots. However, there have been nascent indicators that the Republican Guard may not match up to Saleh's expectations. In a recent combat, a mechanised unit led by Saleh's son, fresh from attending the British military academy in Sandhurst, ran into trouble when confronted by fighters belonging to the tribes of Nihm. In the confrontation that took place short of the Hadramawt area, where anti-regime protests had erupted, the commander of the force was forced to retreat, abandoning several pieces of armour in the battle zone.

In the south, the tribes of Yafi forced a Republican Guard unit to surrender, causing the government to deploy the air force against the tribesmen.

The clash with the opposition is therefore bound to test the resolve, recently found to be wanting, of the pro-Saleh forces, including the Republican Guard. The defection to the opposition of General Muhsin al-Ahmar, commander of the First Mechanised Division, simply called al fiqra (division) in local parlance, has been a huge setback for the Saleh regime. General Muhsin's forces have been protecting the young protesters assembled for months at Sana'a's Tagheer (Change) Square. His troops have so far not joined the fighting, but it will not be surprising if they do participate if clashes between government forces and al-Ahmar tribesmen intensify.

General Muhsin is connected with the Muslim Brotherhood component of the Islah party, of which Hamid al-Ahmar is the founding member. Islah, in turn, is part of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition formed in 2002 which includes the Islah party, the Yemeni Socialist Party, and three other minor parties.

General Muhsin's support will be vital for Hamid al-Ahmar to emerge as the opposition's face and Saleh's internationally accepted alternative. According to the pro-opposition website, Gen. Muhsin has established a wide network of influential friends and supporters since the end of the 1994 civil war. His associates include public figures such as Nasr Taha Mustapha, former manager of the state-run Saba News; Omar al-Arhabi, director Yemen Oil Company; and Ambassador Abd al-Wali al-Shamiri, co-owner of Al-Saeeda TV and a former Arab-Afghan.

While Gen. Muhsin and Hamid al-Ahmar are emerging as prominent figures in a possible post-Saleh dispensation, they have several challenges to surmount before a critical mass to replace Saleh can be established. In order to emerge as the fulcrum of the opposition, the two, along with their associates, have to find solid support from within the vast multitude of young people who have been for months demonstrating their rejection of Saleh's rule.

In order to connect with Yemen's young people, and to allay their well-grounded suspicions that Islamists are hijacking their youthful revolution, the mainstream opposition has to give them hope for a better future.

With 75 per cent of the population below the age of 25, rampant unemployment is a major factor that has been driving the young people to the streets. They are demanding that no longer should nearly eight million of the country's 23 million suffer from chronic hunger. There is also a demand that the country' oil and gas reserves should be employed for building social and physical infrastructure rather than for enriching Yemen's corrupt elite.

There are three other chronic issues that need to be addressed before a viable political alternative to Saleh can emerge. First, the opposition has to demonstrate its resolve to tackle the threat from Al Qaeda extremists. Militants suspected of having links with Al Qaeda have occupied the city of Zinjibar. The presence of extremists in an area that is on the edge of a busy route of oil tankers has attracted significant international attention.

The anti-Saleh camp alleges that the Al Qaeda threat has been exaggerated and says the coalition of tribes, following Saleh's exit, will drive out the Al Qaeda permanently. While this argument has considerable merit, it is unlikely to reassure the paranoid West, which will look for assurances of greater military cooperation before any shifting of power from Saleh to the opposition.

Also, the nascent opposition will have to demonstrate considerable imagination to defuse the southern separatist movement. When Yemen united in 1990, South Yemen's President Ali Salim Al Beidh was appointed Vice President of the united nation. But differences with Saleh soon cropped up, leading Al Beidh to form the Al Harak movement, espousing the cause of a breakaway southern state. The southern movement has been accused of killing hundreds of soldiers and injuring thousands. While Saleh's presence may have driven the southerners to demand secession, the emerging new dispensation will have to build trust and promise significant political and economic benefits in order to lure the southern opposition to the political mainstream.

Finally, the alternative to Saleh will have to tackle the Shia insurgency of ethnic Houthis in the Saada mountains in the north. This will pose a major challenge to an alternative leadership led by the al-Ahmar family and its tribal associates as well as supporters in the military. Saudi Arabia, the al-Ahmar clan's ally, is unlikely to support a rapprochement with the Houthis, suspected, but never proven, to have links with its bitter rival Iran.

As the threat of a civil war looms over Yemen, the opposition, backed by tribes and breakaway military units, appears better prepared to take on government forces loyal to President Saleh. However, the opposition faces a major weakness before it can fill the political vacuum that might emerge should the opposition overwhelm the pro-government forces. The Islamists in the Islah coalition or the mainstream JMP opposition are yet to win the confidence of the young people, many of whom are looking for a modern democratic alternative to Saleh's rule and a revived economy in which they can have a stake.

Yemen is also riven by the separatist movements in the north and the south, apart from facing an Al Qaeda threat. In other words, the shadow regime in Yemen will have to work on a new post-Saleh social contract that can inspire confidence among the people and heal old separatist wounds before it can acquire political legitimacy, both within Yemen and abroad. Otherwise, rapid degeneration of Yemen into a dysfunctional state, which is a threat to international security, can soon turn into an uncomfortable reality.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment