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As the political battle for Yemen’s future unfolds, the country’s most immediate challenge is to avert a bloody civil war. Yet if Yemenis avoid this outcome by peacefully transitioning power, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s replacements will immediately face a daunting economic crisis, festering regional tensions, and an unstable security environment. Moreover, as Saleh negotiates with elites in the capital, powerful tribal and religious interest groups may drown out the youth and civil society protesters demanding far-reaching democratic reform.
Those currently aligned against Saleh represent a diverse group of unlikely allies. Youth and civil society activists originally initiated the anti-regime protests and stand at their symbolic core. But over time and for various reasons—including genuine support for democratic change, opposition to Saleh’s heavy-handed response to the protests, and political opportunism—established opposition parties, Huthi rebels, some southern separatists, religious leaders, prominent tribal sheikhs, businessmen, and army commanders have joined the protests. Although youth and civil society activists welcome assistance in ousting Saleh, they are legitimately skeptical of the role that some of these forces may play in the future.
Among these latecomers is the country’s major opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties, a conglomeration of five opposition parties, including the country’s main Islamist opposition, Islah, and the Yemeni Socialist Party. Although the JMP eventually joined the protests and now advocates for Saleh’s immediate departure, some of its members—particularly Islah’s leadership—enjoy deep personal, financial, and political connections with the current regime. These connections raise questions about the ability or desire of the JMP to faithfully negotiate on behalf of those protesting on the streets. Liberal Yemenis are also deeply concerned about the future role of the Salafi wing of Islah, headed by the powerful cleric, Abdulmajid al-Zindani.
More significantly, the protest movement has increasingly become a battleground for powerful forces within Saleh’s own tribal confederation, Hashid. The sons of Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar, the late preeminent sheikh of Hashid, have been particularly vocal opponents of Saleh. Hamid al-Ahmar, a member of Islah and a powerful businessman, has for years called for Saleh to leave office and was the first in his family to support the protest movement. His brother Hussein joined shortly thereafter, resigning from Saleh’s party and rallying tribal supporters to the capital to join the demonstrators. Following the March 18 shooting of 52 protesters in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a, their older brother Sadik, the current leading sheikh of Hashid, added his voice to calls for Saleh’s ouster. Then, on March 22, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar—a powerful military commander and member of Saleh’s tribe whose influence makes him the second-most powerful man in the country—defected to the protesters, rendering a decisive blow to Saleh. The sons of Sheikh al-Abdullah and individuals such as Muhsin have felt increasingly marginalized by the concentration of power and wealth around Saleh’s son, Ahmed, and nephews. By abandoning Saleh now, they have shifted power within Hashid away from Saleh’s family and toward themselves.
Muhsin’s decision to join the protesters heightened the risk of wider conflict, leading to dozens of defections within the army, including the commander of the military’s eastern division who controls the oil and natural gas export terminals in southeast Yemen.
Despite these desertions, however, Saleh has received enough support to keep the protest movement at bay, at least for the moment. Although the regular army largely supports the protesters in the wake of Muhsin’s defection, the elite Republican Guards, headed by Saleh’s son, and the Central Security Forces and the security services, controlled by his nephews and other close advisors, remain loyal to the regime. Muhsin’s forces have taken defensive positions to protect protesters in Sana’a’s Tagheer Square, while the Republican Guard has increased its presence around the presidential palace, the Central Bank, and other key government buildings. Until now, the two sides have avoided serious confrontation, although skirmishes between the two forces were reported in the southeastern port town of Al Mukallah. Tribes loyal to Ali Muhsin have also attacked Republican Guard positions in the northern governorate of Al Jawf.
As both sides send forces to Sana’a in preparation for a potential confrontation, security conditions outside the capital are rapidly deteriorating. The countryside is being left in the hands of tribal sheikhs or popular committees, exposing parts of the country susceptible to al Qaeda infiltration. Indeed, armed militants have reportedly seized several towns in the governorates of Abyan. Groups supporting an independent state in south Yemen have strengthened their control over parts of the south, while the Huthi rebels are in full control of Saada.
Meanwhile, Muhsin’s decision to join the protesters immediately triggered a series of initially promising negotiations that involved Saleh, leaders of the JMP, and Muhsin himself. On March 23, Saleh publicly announced that he would accept the five-point plan proposed earlier in the month by the JMP that would, among other things, require him to step down by the end of the year. However, for unknown reasons, behind-the-scenes negotiations soon broke down and the opposition insisted that Saleh resign immediately.
Since then, both sides have hardened their positions and are engaging in a dangerous game of public brinkmanship. Sending mixed signals, Saleh promised a massive crowd of supporters on March 25 that he was ready to transfer power, but only to “capable hands.” Yet, that same day, the ruling party announced that Saleh would serve out his term through its end in 2013. Two days later, Saleh stated that he would offer no further concessions to the opposition. Recently, both sides have blamed the other for a massive explosion in an ammunitions storage facility in the southern governorate of Abyan that killed 150 people.
Although the rhetoric between Saleh and the opposition is increasingly inflammatory, the lines of communication remain open. The United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and a number of Yemeni mediators, including respected leaders inside Saleh’s tribe, continue to facilitate discussions. Those with knowledge of the negotiations suggest that there is agreement on the broad contours of a transition plan. Any deal will likely include Saleh relinquishing power to an interim government, which would then be responsible for amending the constitution and drafting new laws for parliamentary and presidential elections.
Yet significant disagreement remains regarding the timeline for Saleh’s exit, as well as the status of his son and nephews. Saleh’s camp would like to see him finish his term, while the opposition wants him to leave within months at most. Saleh’s supporters also insist that if his son and nephews must leave power, the Ahmar brothers should do so as well. One proposal is a four-for-four exchange, whereby Saleh’s son and his three most prominent nephews simultaneously resign with four of the Ahmar brothers, an arrangement that would forbid any of them to reside in the country during the transitional period and new elections.
If Yemen’s political elites can negotiate a peaceful, honorable transition for Saleh and his kin, they will avert the immediate threat of civil war. But equally important is what follows Saleh’s exit. The youth, civil society groups, and pro-democracy reformers are institutionally weak. Should vested interests dominate a potential post-Saleh transition, Yemen may end up with a political system remarkably similar to Saleh’s, controlled by powerful northern tribal elites from the Hashid confederation, aligned with Sunni Islamists. This result would undoubtedly alienate southerners, who legitimately complain of political and economic marginalization under the current system. It would also inflame tensions in the far north, where Zaydi Shiite revivalists have long resented the encroachment of Salafism.
The protest movement may have opened the door to regime transition, but it has also accelerated an intra-elite battle that has little to do with democratic change—and everything to do with perpetuating vested power structures and interests. Reversing that momentum will be difficult but achievable. Whatever happens with negotiations, it is absolutely critical that any transitional government adequately represent youth, civil society, and regional groupings. In addition, Yemen’s political parties must accelerate efforts to empower youth within their leadership structure. Finally, democracy advocates from across the political spectrum must create mechanisms to hold any future government accountable for promised reforms. Fortunately, many of these steps are already under way, and their ability to succeed will play an important role in determining the country’s political trajectory.
At this point, however, the most critical decision is largely in Saleh’s hands: fight or reform. As tensions escalate, even the U.S. government has quietly shifted its position and is encouraging a transfer of power through negotiations. The option of a rapid and dignified transition is still available and may yet salvage Saleh’s legacy. But, the window of opportunity is closing, especially as the protesters’ death toll continues to rise.