‘Yemeni youth are guarding the revolution’

As disparate groups compete for influence in post-Saleh era, young protesters hold the balance of power.

yemen protest
Youth demonstrators in Change Square are aware of the influential groups jostling for power and have pledged to continue protests until representative leadership is organised [EPA]

President Saleh once compared his rule to “dancing on the heads of snakes”.

Earlier this year, Saleh appeared to stumble as protests engulfed the nation and succeeded in bringing together formerly disparate groups of military officials, politicians, tribal chiefs and demonstrators. The 69-year-old leader – who has reportedly maintained power through a network of patrimony and cronyism – seemed to have been caught off guard when, inspired by the Arab Spring, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets to demand an end to his 33-year rule.

Now in its fourth month – one of the longest uprisings of the Arab Spring thus far – it is a testimony to both the protesters’ determination and Saleh’s elusive style and stubborn politics. Although the demonstrations turned the tables of power on Saleh, he did not change his modus operandi, opting instead to treat the crisis as if it were a minor impasse. He attempted to bargain his way out and coupled empty promises with brute force.

Saleh initially offered not to run for re-election in 2013 and stated that his son, Ahmed Ali, head of the elite Republican Guard, would also not stand. It was the same promise he made in 2005, announcing he would not be a candidate in the 2006 election. He reneged on his word just three months before polls opened.

This time round, the nation would reject his offer. Demonstrators wanted nothing less than an immediate transfer of power and settled in for the long haul. Protests soon spread to other cities and Saleh began to respond with violence, particularly in the city of Taiz, where demonstrators were hit hardest.

The watershed moment that would mark a major turning point in the conflict was the March 18 attack against protesters. Known as “Bloody Friday”, 52 demonstrators were killed when they were fired upon by government-controlled gunmen.

The incident resulted in mass defections and resignations from top military and civilian officials, including several Yemeni ambassadors. To spare himself of the embarrassment of further political losses, Saleh sacked his entire cabinet on March 20.

Just one day later, General Ali Mohsen, Saleh’s former chief military advisor, defected – pledging to protect the demonstrators in Change Square – and signalling the first major blow to the regime. According to Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and expert witness on the country to the US Congress, the defection indicated a break between Saleh’s immediate family and the rest of his supporters in the military.

“Ali Mohsen is by far the most powerful figure in the military and his announcement opened the floodgates, as officer after officer has now come out supporting the revolution,” he said.

Mohsen’s break with the regime is looked at with cynicism by demonstrators and experts alike. According to Johnson: “What Ali Mohsen is doing is setting himself up for a post-Saleh future. His announcement put him in position to head the military or military council under the next government. This is something a number of prominent Yemenis were waiting for. Not because they liked Ali Mohsen, they don’t. But because he commands so much loyalty within the army.”

Along with Mohsen’s defection, Saleh’s own tribe, the Hashid confederation, issued a statement a few days following the attacks, asking Saleh to leave peacefully. The Hashids, Yemen’s most powerful tribe, are headed by the Ahmar brothers, who, according to political analyst Abdullah M Hamidaddin, have long been encroaching on Saleh’s authority:

“They’ve been challenging Saleh’s access to more power for some time now. They had a score to settle with Saleh but they did not dare to confront him directly until the youth took to the streets. This is a power struggle between Saleh, Ali Mohsen, and the Ahmar brothers. The youth were the playing field.”

Competing for power

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The ten brothers inherited leadership of the Hashid tribe in 2007, after the death of their father, Sheikh Abdullah. Sheikh Abdullah founded Yemen’s largest opposition party, the religious conservative Islah. He was considered Saudi’s main ally in Yemen and his sons maintain strong ties with the country.

According to Johnson: “The descendants of al Ahmar and Saleh increasingly view each other as competitors for the same shrinking pie of political power. The contest for control of the state is now said to be, in a bit of an Arabic pun, one between the two Bayt (house of) al Ahmars. The reference is to Sheikh Abdullah’s surname and the president’s home village, Bayt al Ahmar.”

The power struggle between the families centres around Hamid al Ahmar. A successful businessman, he heads the Islah party and is considered the most politically ambitious of the brothers. The party threw its weight behind the opposition early on, setting up tents in Change Square and providing financial support to the opposition.

The pan-Arab daily Al Quds al Arabi named Hamid al Ahmar as one of three candidates most likely to succeed Saleh. The other two were the president’s son, Ahmad, and his nephew, Yahya.

According to Johnson: “The list is suggestive of the centralisation of politics in Yemen over the past three decades. The contest for control of the state is now said to be one between two families. This process of consolidating power has morphed to the point where the military and intelligence command structure – the true power of the state – resembles the family tree of Saleh’s own tribe.”

Like Ali Mohsen, the Ahmar clan is also looked upon with much suspicion. Their influence stretches deep, to the chagrin of many activists and organisers at the square. Even more troubling is Islah‘s close alliance with Ali Muhsin’s First Armoured Division. According to Salah al Sharafi, founder of the Union of Movements for Independent Youth, Islah is attempting to control the movement.

“They think they can buy this revolution. We don’t trust them. They were for the GCC agreement when many of us weren’t and they’re still trying to force us to support the plan,” he said.

Sharafi’s sentiments are shared by many of the revolutionaries, who believe the plan is nothing more than a means for Saudi to control Yemen through proxy leadership.

“We want a Yemen-initiated plan with no outside interference. The Saudis will work hard to place their strongman Hamid al Ahmar in power, but we will work hard to prevent this,” said al Sharafi. “If Ahmar continues to try to control the movement through his agents in Islah, we expect violence. We are here, we are independent, we are not afraid of Islah. We will make our own alliances with tribes.”

On May 23, one day after Saleh refused to sign the GCC-backed initiative for the third time, Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, the eldest son and official head of the Hashid tribal federation, announced his support for the opposition. It signalled the second major blow to Saleh’s regime. Violent clashes ensued between Ahmar fighters and security forces in the suburb of Hasaba, home to Sheikh al Ahmar. The violence would leave Hasaba in ruins and at least 120 dead.

The third and most recent blow to the regime came on June 3, when Saleh and several top officials were injured during an attack against the presidential palace. As details begin to emerge into the public sphere, many are pointing to it being “an inside job”.

Medical sources in Saudi Arabia, where Saleh is being treated, say he suffered from burns on 40 per cent of his body and a collapsed lung. The day after the attack, Vice President Abd al Rab Mansur al Hadi took over as acting president. While crowds in Change Square celebrated Saleh’s departure, Yemeni officials insisted on state television that Saleh’s absence was temporary. However, some experts believe a return to power is highly unlikely.

“He is heavily sedated and quite disfigured, as I understand things,” said Grant Hopkins, a former political consultant in Yemen and founder of ICEX, a geopolitical consulting firm. “Even with a full recovery it will take at least a year to heal. I doubt that he will ever return. The real issue is what his son is doing.”

Just exactly who’s running the country now depends on who you ask.

Vice President Joe Biden reportedly phoned al Hadi to say that the US would recognise his authority. However, Yemen experts and much of the local press believe that Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali is the de facto ruler. Saleh’s son and his three nephews control important sectors of the military and security apparatus.

In an interesting move, Ahmed Ali moved into the presidential palace soon after his father’s departure – while al Hadi continued to work out of his office. According to Johnsen, al Hadi is not seen as a strong player.

“When Saleh needed a southerner for balance, he chose Hadi, who was everything he was looking for: loyal, weak, and from the south,” said Johnsen.

Ali Mohsen’s division now stands guard outside al Hadi’s home, purportedly protecting him from the military arm of the regime he now leads. According to Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a political analyst in Yemen and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement, the extent of Ahmed Ali’s authority is limited.

“Saleh’s son and nephews assume very critical positions in the security and military apparatuses. However, they cannot defy the political leadership, especially given the fact that the acting president is quite respected by all parties. And the fact of the matter is, the political protest is the only option for everyone now,” said al Iryani.

“The resort to violence did not work for the president, in his full capacity, and with all the top lieutenants beside them. Now they’re gone. The prime minister is badly injured. The speaker of parliament is injured. Two deputy prime ministers are injured. So, how could the son and the nephews continue the violent confrontation without the support of a political arm?”

Filling the gulf in political authority

With the current power vacuum, of utmost concern to the West is the threat of al-Qaeda. Political consultant Hopkins believes the US will use this time to selectively target suspected al-Qaeda targets in a unilateral campaign. “It makes sense. In a political vacuum it has been my experience that going on the attack is the best defence,” he said.

Indeed, this week the US stepped up its covert campaign in the south of Yemen and targeted armed groups understood to be linked with al-Qaeda with remotely controlled drone aircraft and fighter jets. Strikes reportedly killed al-Qaeda operative Abu Ali al-Harithi and several other suspects. Four civilians were also understood to have been killed.

According to Prof Clive Jones, Chair of Middle East Studies and International Politics at Leeds University, Saleh inflated the threat of al-Qaeda to make his rule appear indispensible to the West. “Playing on primordial fears of jihadi threats determines a hierarchy of values that inevitably links the fate of Yemen’s president to wider western security interests. It is, in effect, a dependency relationship – but one perhaps where inflation of the threat is realised in the political capital that Saleh has accrued externally.”

Saleh depended on this capital to help him survive the latest impasse. He continued to play “the terrorism card” and many accuse him of orchestrating the recent conflict in the southern Yemeni city of Zinjibar. Hundreds of armed militants reportedly belonging to al-Qaeda took control of the city on May 27, after military posts were abandoned. Several top defected generals accused Saleh of intentionally ceding territory to the militants. Saleh would later send in troops to resolve a problem he created, according to a statement released by nine former generals. In the same statement, they called on other officers to defect and support the opposition.

“In reality, Saleh has not been all that cooperative in the war on terror,”says Iryani. “Saleh has only given lip service to fighting terrorism, which is why the US was forced to use the drones to pursue extremists.” According to Iryani, “A democratically elected president would do a more efficient job in eradicating the few hundred al-Qaeda members in a way that is sensitive to the people of Yemen.”

According to Hopkins, the real wild card is the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia rebel group based in Saada, a city in Northern Yemen. The Houthis have been engaged in violent clashes with the state since 2004 and claim that they are defending their community against state aggression and discrimination. In late 2009, clashes broke out between Houthi rebels and Saudi forces along their common border. Both the Saudi and Yemeni governments accuse Iran of aiding the rebels, a claim that Iran denies.

Hopkins believes their role will be critical and integral to a future Yemen state. “They were dealt a near lethal blow in 2009-10, bought and paid for by the [Saudi] Kingdom. They survived. The Saudis fear them but this may not be a time for resurrecting new hostilities in Saada,” says Hopkins. “The kingdom, no doubt, will see the hidden hand of Tehran and will shout that message to the rooftops. But unless the US is in agreement, that will be a hollow cri de couer. I would hope that Washington would not misread the politics of this a second time.”

Enter the youth movement

Where does this messy, convoluted equation leave the opposition youth? According to Jones, the political field is still determined by tribal allegiances. “This ultimately will determine the dispensation of power in Yemen in the short to medium term future at least. Even the rifts in the military hierarchy that have so rattled Saleh have tribal context.”

Khaled al-Anesi, human rights attorney and one of the main organisers in Change Square, is more optimistic and believes that the ball is now in the opposition’s court: “In this equation, the opposition has the upper hand and should ask for something more.”

Specifically, the opposition has two demands. The first is the establishment of a presidential council composed of five to seven people who will lead Yemen in a transitional government until elections. The second demand is the establishment of a national council, composed of 100-150 members who will be charged with promoting dialogue among the different factions and creating a new constitution. Its members, according to al-Anesi, will be selected from different tribes, parties, and experts.

The GCC stipulates that elections should occur two months after the transfer of power. Opposition organisers however, want to hold off on elections for a few months longer. “Two months is too soon for elections. We need to rebuild our country and create a new constitution,” says al-Anesi.

He continued:

The Gulf countries are attempting to rush the process because they want to change the face of the system only. We want to change the entire system. The youth will continue the revolution for as long as need be. It’s not an easy mission. We expect a power struggle. The tribe will try to claim power but the youth know what they want and will not rest until they attain all their rights.

Iryani is more optimistic, believing the youth movement will not stand in the way if the general political community comes to a resolution. “I think what they are doing – the sit-ins and marches – is a healthy thing; it keeps them vigilant and prevents the process from being hijacked. They are the safeguard of the revolution. They will not allow the Ahmars or the ruling party to strike a deal at their expense.”

Despite the past few violent weeks, Iryani believes the youth are still in charge of the uprising and maintains that the military wing is limited in its authority. “The military, tribal, religious elites are not the masters of the Square. If we’re talking about firepower, then the tribe and military have a monopoly – but they’ve been proven irrelevant in advancing this peaceful revolution. I do not think the youth will be dominated or intimidated by these tribal and military forces.”

With Saleh now out of the country, the nation is fast approaching a peaceful transfer of power, says Iryani. For their part, the youth have succeeded in bringing together different factions under one banner, something that Saleh, Yemen’s only leader in modern history, has never succeeded in doing – without feeling like he was “dancing on the heads of snakes”.

Whether that unity will survive through this latest volatile phase in Yemen’s history remains to be seen.

Source: Al Jazeera