News Analysis / James M. Dorsey: Yemen revolt becomes naked struggle for power


Escalating hostilities in Yemen between pro- and anti-government forces threatens to return the country to square one

Virtual civil war in the country positions embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh to brutally crack down on his opponents and re-consolidate his position as the country’s authoritarian leader.

It also increasingly renders the youth who were inspired by the toppling of the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia—and who started the anti-Saleh campaign in February with peaceful, mass anti-government protests—the war’s real, albeit temporary, losers.

The mounting violence could establish Yemen the first major defeat of the Arab revolt that started in December 2010 so promisingly, produced the relatively quick Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and swept the Middle East and North Africa, but has since degenerated into increasingly bloody confrontations in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

Bent on clinging to power at whatever price, Mr. Saleh is unlikely to have received the message contained in developments in Bahrain this week: the Arab revolt that started in Tunisia has opened a Pandora’s Box that cannot be closed by brutally forcing opposition forces into submission. Protesters reiterated their determination to have their grievances heard and addressed by taking to the streets in villages across the Gulf island-nation within hours of the Bahraini government lifting martial law imposed three months ago.

For now however, Mr. Saleh seems more inspired by Syria than by Bahrain. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad escalated his brutal crackdown on protesters that has already cost the lives of more than a 1,000 people with the pounding by Syrian government troops on Thursday of the central town of Rastan with artillery and gunfire.

To be sure, the going hasn’t been all that easy for Mr. Saleh. Tribesmen of the Hashed tribal confederation, Yemen’s most powerful tribal group, have been standing their ground against government forces in Sana’a that forced the closure Thursday of the Yemen capital’s international airport.

Escalating hostilities could draw other tribes into the conflict and persuade the powerful dissident commander of the Yemeni military’s first armored division, General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, a Hashed himself, to join the tribesmen.

Mr. Saleh may well see the fighting as his final showdown with his opponents. His forces used mortars and rocket-propelled grenades this week to attack General Ahmar’s headquarters. Thousands of armed tribesmen were meanwhile reportedly heading to Sana’a on Thursday to join the fighting against Mr. Saleh’s forces.

US President Barack Obama dispatched his counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the deteriorating situation in Yemen. Mr. Saleh backed out of a Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) mediation effort that would have allowed the president to resign after 32 years in office with a guarantee of immunity against prosecution.

Yemeni opposition leaders will be monitoring Mr. Brennan’s talks closely looking for any suggestion that the escalating violence will persuade the United States and Saudi Arabia that Mr. Saleh is the only person who can prevent Yemen for descending into chaos and anarchy.

The confrontation between Mr. Saleh and the tribesmen has effectively pushed the youth and civil society activists, who kicked off the effort to force Mr. Saleh from office, to the sidelines. It has turned the Yemeni crisis into a struggle for power between heavily armed groups that are likely to determine the country’s immediate future.

Leaders of the youth movement, that has since February developed into an unruly coalition of students, Islamists, socialists, southern separatists, human rights activists, defected military officers, and tribal figures, are groping for a way to get back in the game.

They fear that continued violence will only strengthen Mr. Saleh in a country whose population is one of the most heavily armed in the world.

“Arms are easily obtained. However, we have no choice but to opt against using them. Our revolution is different from the ones in Egypt and Tunisia. Our president has the money, the army, and the power. By provoking a civil war, Saleh will be able to win,” says Jamal Nassar, a spokesman for the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution for Change.

Nonetheless, the escalating violence is prompting some peaceful protesters to wonder whether pacifism remains an option.

Whatever course the protesters choose, events in recent weeks show that they lack the clout to carve out their own space in what has become an entrenched battle between Mr. Saleh and the tribes with their own vested interests.

By rejecting the GCC deal and forcing the council to halt its mediation effort, Mr. Saleh, in a clever divide-and-rule-ploy, effectively drove a wedge between his opponents.

Youth leaders, who were from the outset skeptical about efforts to negotiate a resolution with Mr. Saleh, have lost all confidence that the president may depart voluntarily.

They also have no trust in the six political parties grouped in the Joint Meetings Party (JMP) that was negotiating with Mr. Saleh under GCC auspices. The leaders charge that by agreeing to the failed deal, the JMP effectively acquiesced in Mr. Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) remaining in power after the president’s departure. Under the proposed deal, Mr. Saleh would have resigned within 30 days and handed over power to his vice president.

The youth leaders may be the only ones in Yemen committed to real change. The fast deteriorating situation however leaves them with increasingly few options.

They know what they don’t want: a civil war that would produce at best cosmetic changes but keep the essence of Mr. Saleh’s authoritarian rule intact. But when it comes to what to do, the youth leaders don’t really get beyond insisting that they want their revolution and they want it now.

For now, that demand looks like it is fast becoming the major casualty of what has become a brutal, naked struggle for power.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, 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: [email protected])