Yemen: Tensions rise after president’s speech

Various factions make plans after the injured president makes a shaky televised address from Saudi Arabia.

With president Ali Abdullah Saleh recovering in Saudi Arabia from a bomb attack, Yemen’s other power brokers are vying for control and young activists fear their protest movement has been commandered by elites [Reuters]

For the first time since the attack against the presidential compound which left him injured, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s beleaguered president, made an appearance on Thursday in a prerecorded speech that aired on state television.

His face appeared darkened from burns sustained in the attack, and he had trouble speaking. His bandaged arms did not move during the course of his seven minute speech. Speaking from Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, where he is recovering from injuries, a defiant Saleh said that he would “confront a challenge with a challenge”.

After 33-years of rule and six months of protests calling for him to step down, Saleh appeared as obstinate as ever, stating that his regime welcomes dialogue with all political parties within the framework of the constitution. His supporters dubbed the event as “proof of life” and took to the streets, opening fire into the air to celebrate.

Abdullah M Hamiddadin, a political analyst based in Jeddah, says the speech gave an important boost to his supporters and deflated much of the confidence of his major contenders. It sent a clear message: not only is he alive, but that he is still a relevant player. Hamidaddin – a direct descendent of the Yemeni imamate who was overthrown by a military coup in 1962 – describes Saleh as a genuine survivor. “He’s – relatively speaking – still the strongest man in Yemen, or at least his team is. He has been a liability for the Saudis for a very long while, but a liability that they recognise they have to live with.”

Hamidaddin believes the Saudis gambled on the Ahmar family, the head of Yemen’s most powerful tribe – the Hashid confederation – as possible contenders for power. Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar came out in support of the opposition in March and many believe the Ahmars were simply using the youth protest movement as a stepping stone to power. “The Ahmars had their chance but they proved to be incapable of rallying enough support to tip the power in their favour,” Hamidaddin said.

He argues that Saleh’s own accumulated strength as manifested in the military, the enemies of his contenders, the absence of institutions, and the keenness of Saleh’s tribe, Sanhan, to stay in power – are all factors that make Saleh a formidable opponent. 

Possible motives

Others analysts however are unconvinced. “He appeared in incredibly bad shape and you have to wonder what the motivation was to have him speak in that kind of condition,” says Grant Hopkins, a former political consultant in Yemen and founder of ICEX, a geopolitical consulting firm. Hopkins argues that the speech fails to accomplish anything and believes that with no resolution in sight, the Saudis are forced to keep Saleh in the equation.

“You have a robust secessionist movement operating in Aden coupled with the government’s inability to enforce its authority against militants in southern Yemen. There’s also the problem of the collapsing economy and a humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding,” Hopkins said. “‘Proof of life’ doesn’t signal a comeback. In an age of instantaneous communication, a seven minute speech prerecorded in a Saudi military hospital just seems like a last ditch effort to prop up a leader of a government which can no longer offer a sense of political legitimacy or security to the people being governed.”

Members of the youth-led uprising also debate possible motives behind Saleh’s recent speech. Activist and organiser Izzedin Al-Sharabi believes that the speech will not have any effect on their movement. “We still want an end to this regime. Our problem is not with Saleh alone, it is with the entire regime. We seek an end to the corruption and our revolution will continue against the JMP and regime,” said the activist, who also criticised the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a broad opposition coalition of Islamists, socialists and tribal elements.  

Freelance reporter and activist Fares Shamsan says the speech served to show his supporters and opponents that he is still alive. “He seemed confused. He didn’t mention anything about returning to Yemen and focused on solutions related to the GCC.  All this indicates he won’t be returning to power.” But whether he returns or not does not matter anyway, argus Shamsan. “Our problem now is not with him, but with the JMP.” Formed in 2005, the JMP threw its weight behind the youth movement early on in the revolution. Many accuse its members of hijacking the revolution for their own political interests.  

Sidelining young protesters

Shamsan is less optimistic about the fate of the five month-old uprising, currently the longest-running series of protests in the Arab Spring. He is not alone in his feelings and many other youth in Change Square share his disheartenment. “Many believe if negotiations between the JMP and ruling party succeed, the youth will go on to accept the final agreement. The US and Saudis are still pushing for the GCC plan, which only seeks to divide power among the elites. We don’t support negotiations with the regime, but it’s no longer in the hands of the youth. The opposition proved to be weak in the weeks after Saleh’s injury. We sat here for five weeks and did nothing.”

Many demonstrators blame the movement’s stagnation on the JMP and General Ali Muhsin, who are believed to be collaborating against the youth. “We believe the JMP used our movement to pressure the regime into negotiations. Once Saleh left, they turned against us,” Shamsan said. “Any time we tried to demonstrate, the JMP would send Ali Muhsin’s soldiers to push us back. The independent youth here feel like no one is supporting them. My view is the revolution will start to die once negotiations begin.”

Haykal Bafana, an investment banker and attorney residing in the capital Sanaa, argues that Saleh’s departure helped to solidify his position in Yemen. “The attack on Saleh caught the opposition unprepared – whether it’s the escalation they promised, or some sort of structure for transition governance, nothing came about. It caused the movement to self-destruct and lose momentum, as infighting began and differing political aims surfaced.”

Bafana says under the cover of the attack’s aftermath, the regime adopted a wide range of counter revolutionary measures. “In Saleh’s absence, electricity was curtailed, diesel and petrol supplies dried up, security went downhill, water became more scarce, Abyan and Shabwa experienced conflict, there was the al-Qaeda prison escape, and so forth. Within two weeks, the Yemeni public was largely blaming the opposition youth and JMP for the tense situation.” On top of the accusations, Bafana says throughout the period, the opposition were kept off balance by repeated rumors from the regime of Saleh’s health and return.

Notably absent from Saleh’s speech was the subject of al-Qaeda. Saleh’s opponents accuse the regime of cynically allowing Islamic fighters to seize towns in southern Yemen in an attempt to make Saleh appear indispensible to the war on terror. The United States recently began launching drone strikes to deal with the problem. According to Hamidaddin, the threat of al-Qaeda is greatly inflated. “It’s more a tribal issue than one of militancy. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is not a legitimate threat. It’s a burden; a hassle. It cannot sustain itself.”

Hamidaddin argues that various tribes have always fought against the government and resisted its authority. With AQAP he says, it is no different. “Peripheral events in Yemen haven’t mattered for the past 40 years, no matter how violent and massive they are. Such events have been happening all the time. The flavour of militancy doesn’t change its underlying reality: a power struggle between local communities and a central authority that they don’t recognise as legitimate. But all parties have begun to realise that they cannot exclude each other. There is a serious quest towards a resolution.”

Food insecurity

In the short term, Hamidaddin argues that the situation in Yemen is so volatile that only gradual transfer of power can keep the situation intact. “Imagine what a sudden exit of Saleh would mean to the 50,000-plus US trained personnel in the special forces. Or to their elite security apparatus. This is not a country of institutions where you can take away the general, bring in another, and all goes as before. There is a lot of political activity behind the scenes working to create a resolution.”

Ultimately, Hamidaddin believes that these efforts will lead to some form of coalition government. As for the youth-led movement, Hamiddadin says they were never serious contenders to begin with. “They ought to organise in political parties, but their influence will only come in the space which the main powers will leave to them.”

Many analysts and observers believe the greatest threat to Yemen is not AQAP but its collapsing economy and the current humanitarian crisis. According to a report released this month by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the economic situation has deteriorated even further and if the currency continues to plunge, an additional 15 per cent of Yemenis will be pushed below the poverty line.

As the most impoverished Arab country, statistics show that one in three Yemenis is already food insecure and under-nourished. The prices of certain commodities have increased substantially since the start of the unrest and the cost of bread has risen by 50 per cent in the past few months.

A UN mission visiting Yemen released a statement this past Wednesday warning that Yemen needs urgent international aid to stave off a humanitarian crisis. “We remind everyone, whether government or non-government parties, that civilians should not fall as victims of collective punishment because of the power struggle,” the statement said. “The absence of security, the spread of outlaws, obstacles preventing free movement, and the many outcomes of oil and power shortages have greatly influenced the economy and means of transporting food from cities to countryside.” 

Hopkins, the analyst, believes the longer Yemen is kept in political limbo, the increased likelihood of civil war. “There’s a fuel shortage, people are starving, it’s quickly turning to absolute chaos – Saleh’s speech doesn’t change that. The story that quite frankly no one is interested in, is the ensuing humanitarian crisis. Everyone is focused on Saleh and there is little interest in the suffering of the people as this political contest thrashes itself out.”

Source: Al Jazeera