Amid talk in the Yemeni capital Sana’a about how long President Ali Abdullah Saleh can cling to power, one thing seems certain: not much will really change if and when he goes.
Deep divisions among his opponents are likely to ensure that Mr. Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) will retain power whether or not the president is around to lead it. GPC’s positioning is also enhanced by divisions within the armed forces with key units commanded by members of the president’s family loyal to the president. The split in the military has moreover deprived Yemen of a powerful institution that like in the case of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could tell Mr. Saleh authoritatively that it is time to go.
As a result, Mr. Saleh is showing no inclination to leave office before his term ends in 2013. He has several times backed out of a deal negotiated by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that would have eased him out of office in exchange for immunity against prosecution.
Yemen is meanwhile rapidly descending into chaos and anarchy as a result of Mr. Saleh’s tenacity. It is a situation that the president believes works in his favor whether or not he retains power. It strengthens his claim that only he can prevent Yemen from disintegrating and Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Gulf (AQAP), from taking over parts of the country.
It also deepens the divisions in the country and among the opposition which enhances the GPC’s ability to hold on to power if and when he is gone.
As if to prove Mr. Saleh’s point, Islamist militants this weekend took control of the coastal town of Zinjibar in the southern province of Abyan, seizing banks, government offices and the security headquarters. The capture of Zinjibar followed the militant’s takeover in March of the city of Jaar.
The fall Zinjibar and Jaar, feeds Western and Gulf fears that AQAP could benefit spiraling chaos in Yemen.
Mr. Saleh’s opponents charged that the embattled president had engineered the takeover to weaken his erstwhile allies’ resolve to remove him from power. Although there is no evidence to substantiate the claim, it would not be the first time that Mr. Saleh used AQAP to demonstrate his value in the struggle against Islamist militancy. Mr. Saleh has repeatedly warned since the eruption in February of mass protests demanding his departure that AQAP would take over parts of the country if he left.
The sense of mounting anarchy was further fueled by continued fighting in Sana’a between government forces and fighters of the Hashid tribal confederation, Yemen’s most powerful tribal grouping, despite the declaration of a ceasefire. Some 100 people have been killed since hostilities erupted last Monday.
Mr. Saleh further demonstrated his resolve to break the demonstrators’ back by sending security forces to clear a square in Taiz, a city in the center of the country, where protesters had been squatting since February. Twenty people were killed in the clashes. Protesters there said plainclothes men were early Monday setting their tents on fire and destroying others with bulldozers.
The Syria-style crackdown on the protesters and the fact that the only thing Mr. Saleh’s opponents agree on is that they want him to go has enabled the president to repeatedly go back on his promise to resign and allowed the GPC to emerge as the major party with an intact, cohesive organization and a strong grassroots following.
Like in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is one of, if not the best organized opposition force, Yemen’s Islamist Islah Party is emerging as a dominating force in the coalition of six opposition parties alongside a medley of youth, leftists, liberals and religious groups that form the backbone of the mass protests.
Islah is an umbrella for moderate Islamists as well as hardliners led by Sheikh Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani, who has been designed a terrorist by the United States for allegedly funding Al Qaeda and serving as a spiritual leader to Osama bin Laden. Protesters say the party has already made its influence felt on Sana’s Change Square where the protesters are gathered. They say the party imposed strict gender segregation on the square and attacked women and men who refused to comply.
Opposition leaders, in a bid to disassociate themselves from the spiraling violence and to counter Mr. Saleh’s projection of himself as the country’s potential savior, have called for peaceful anti-government protests. The GPC, in a move that could set the scene for clashes, said it would organize a counter “law and order” demonstration.
Perhaps the only bright light on Yemen’s horizon is the reported defection to the opposition of a brigade of the Republican Guard that is commanded by Mr. Saleh's son, Ahmed as well as a statement by the country’s Military Council criticizing Mr. Saleh. General Abdullah Ali Elaiwah, one of the military’s top commanders was further quoted as saying that Mr. Saleh’s top aides are advising him to step down.
The military pressure on Mr. Saleh is believed to have been sparked by the militants’ takeover of Zinjibar. Betting on the military however may be grasping for a thin straw. Earlier military defections have failed to sway Mr. Saleh and in effect weakened the military as the country’s only authoritative institution. For now, Mr. Saleh appears to be brushing the military criticism aside.
(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)