As the Arab Spring continues to reverberate through the countries of the Islamic Middle East, attention has now turned to the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state of Yemen. There the popular rising against President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s regime that began last February, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, is now rapidly descending into a bloody civil war.
In a country where every second person owns a gun, the escalation of violence has been gradual but deadly. Hundreds have been killed during September in heavy fighting on the streets of the capital Sana’a, as forces loyal to the government have sought to violently suppress street protests. In response, army units that have defected are protecting the protestors. As these well-armed military formations square up to each other, the death toll has mounted.
Can civil war in Yemen now be prevented? And if it cannot, what are the consequences of longer-term instability in this increasingly volatile yet strategically important region?
THE ARAB SPRING
The protestors who took to the streets in February demanded that President Saleh immediately stand down. In March, a rival faction mounted an incendiary attack on the presidential compound in an attempt to assassinate Saleh. The President was badly burned in the attack, and was taken to neighbouring Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.
Many Yemenis hoped that he would never return, but Saleh was not prepared to give up power so easily. Attempts to negotiate a political transition that would see him stand down so that elections could be held continued throughout his recuperation. Diplomats involved in brokering a settlement claim that a deal was close to being signed three times, but on each occasion Saleh stalled and withdrew at the last minute. This brinkmanship has exasperating his opponents, who say that the deal is on the table and Saleh must take it or suffer the consequences.
The protests and sporadic gun battles in Sana’a rumbled on in Saleh’s absence, but then, on 23 September, the crisis came to a head when Saleh returned to Sana’a, announcing that his government would work toward a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but refusing to relinquish power. The opposition factions rejected his overtures, their patience exhausted. Within days of his return, the fighting escalated. The die, it seems, has been cast: Yemen is lurching into civil war.
AN EMERGING CRISIS
But the Arab Spring is not the only catalyst of political change in Yemen. There are deeper political rifts. Saleh’s government also faces an al-Qaeda inspired insurrection, a local separatist movement in the south, and a rebellion led by the heavily armed Houthi family in the north. None of these challenges to Saleh’s authority can be speedily resolved.
Yemen’s political troubles are compounded by economic failings. While the neighbouring countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait – represent a prosperous trading block with strong oil economies, Yemen is mired in poverty. Yemen’s GDP, at less than $1000 per capita, is 40 times lower than the average for the GCC countries. And things are getting worse. Oil revenues have fallen, and Yemen will soon be a net importer. With no alternative means to raise foreign exchange, the economic future looks bleak.
Social ills have also undermined stability. Discontent with rampant corruption and flagrant political preferment has become increasingly vociferous, both from some of those within the ruling regime and in the wider Yemeni public. Service delivery is abysmal, there are high rates of child malnutrition and acute shortages of water in many areas, and youth unemployment has spiralled out of control.
Many Yemenis have aspirations to change the political system and to tackle these problems: there is a genuine demand for a more legitimate, responsive and inclusive government. But the elite factions who have controlled Yemeni politics in its current form for more than three decades are reluctant to give up the reins of power. Removing Saleh may not change anything if it brings in another faction from within the regime that will behave in the same way.
Yemen’s friends and neighbours are deeply alarmed. Western governments, who feared that Yemen’s descent into chaos might give space for al-Qaeda to grow in strength, have been working with the Gulf Cooperation Council to tackle the security risks posed by Yemen’s fragility. Since the street protests of the early part of 2011, culminating in the assassination attempt on President Saleh in March, the Gulf Cooperation Council has actively brokered a settlement that would bring about a change of regime.
Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, in particular, has a large stake in Yemen’s future, and many local political commentators believe that the Saudis have been trying to engineer an outcome that suits their political interests. But neither they nor the Gulf states will give way to reformist pressures: these conservative Arab regimes do not wish to foster ‘people power’ of any kind in their region. This all adds to the complexity of the situation, giving Saleh a great deal of room to negotiate his position.
Elite competition is the driver of Yemeni politics. Saleh’s regime is a coalition of vested interests, each faction within the regime vying against others for political influence. It is important to remember that Yemen has only been a single unified state since 1990. Tribalism is a strong feature of all politics, the populous northern regions remaining detached and remote, while politics in the south is fractiously divided between a myriad of petty sultanates. In the city port of Aden, a distinctively radical politics emerged that has fuelled ideological nationalism. To make the Yemeni state work, all of these elements must be welded together.
It is no easy task. In 1994 the unity collapsed in civil war between north and south. The northern victory was consolidated by their exploitation of the south, and by a markedly more coercive style of government. This has nurtured resentments in the south, but competition for resources has also split the northerners against themselves.
Yemeni politics is deeply factional. Within the ruling party, the General People’s Congress, there is a complex regional political mix, including some outspoken critics of Saleh. Quarrels, rifts and feuds mark political life. Competition within the regime is severe, and it has intensified as Saleh has sought to consolidate power around his own family. For this reason, Saleh’s deepest enemies are found not among the street protestors, but within his own regime.
Saleh has held power now for 33 years. He skilfully built a coalition of elites to secure his position, but in recent years the fragile unity of this group has crumbled away. Opposition has gathered around the powerful senior army commander General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, formerly a member of the regime inner circle and a close kinsman of Saleh. He and the soldiers under his command defected to the rebel cause in March.
The rift between the General and the family of the President has been evident for several years. Mohsin al-Ahmar’s First Armoured Brigade played a leading role in the campaign against Houthi rebels in the north from 2004, but Saleh took the opportunity to trim the General’s authority by arming the Houthi faction so as to make the task more difficult. Then the Republican Guard, commanded by Saleh’s son, joined the fray in the north, often seeming to work at odds with General Mohsin al-Ahmar’s forces. The General’s defection was therefore a long time coming, but now that it has happened it seems to be irrevocable. This struggle is in many senses a family affair, and a bitter one at that.
The defection of General Ali Mohsin gave critical impetus to the current crisis. Since Saleh’s return to Sana’a, General Mohsin has been belligerent in attacking government positions. In the last week of September numerous gun battles erupted in the streets of Sana’a, ordinary citizens fleeing for their lives as heavy shelling rocked many parts of the capital. Sana’a is descending into anarchy.
To complicate matters further, a third faction has emerged from within the regime to challenge the authority of President Saleh. The family of the late Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, formerly paramount chief of Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid, combines traditional authority with a prominent economic role in local business and a political role in parliament and in the opposition. Among the Sheikh’s several sons, all of them active in politics, Hameed al-Ahmar has emerged as the key player. In 2010 it was widely reported that Hameed had hatched a plot to overthrow President Saleh, and that he intended to draw General Ali Mohsin into the conspiracy.
As news of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and then Egypt spread to Yemen at the beginning of 2011, Hameed seized his opportunity, doing all he could to promote street protest in Sana’a. At the end of March, following General Mohsin’s defection, Hameed openly called for Saleh to stand down.
THE WAR ON TERROR
A strong feature of the present crisis has been the role of the US government, in seeking to bolster Saleh’s authority despite all of the signs of his decline. Nothing in Yemen makes sense these days unless we take account of the ‘global war on terror’.
US support for Saleh has allowed him to paper over the cracks of his declining authority. But, back in the 1990s, Saleh was no friend of the West. Following the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s forces, Yemen refused to support the international coalition against Iraq.
Only as al-Qaeda became active in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, did the US seek to woe the Saleh regime with military assistance. Prompted by the attack on an American warship in Aden harbour in 2000, US military and intelligence support was initially aimed at assisting the Saudis in their campaign to thwart the internal security challenges posed by al-Qaeda.
US successes in Afghanistan led many al-Qaeda fighters there to flee to Yemen, where they were initially able to set up operations without interference. Saleh’s government was too preoccupied with the Houthi rebels in the north to worry too much about al-Qaeda. Then a prison break in February 2006 resulted in the escape into the Yemeni countryside of 23 leading al-Qaeda activists – including several who had been transferred from Guantanamo.
By 2008, the Yemeni al-Qaeda cell was actively targeting the security forces of the Saleh regime. Initially under the leadership of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a Saudi who had formerly served as bin Laden’s secretary in Afghanistan, this tactic proved highly successful. The cell has grown in strength, with the charismatic radical American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi even recruiting a number of Western-born Muslims and converts.
Al-Qaeda influence is strongest in the south of the country, where Saleh’s government is struggling to maintain control. In the province of Abyan, al-Qaeda has seized control of several coastal towns, including the regional capital of Zinjibar. And in June 2011, a heavily armed al-Qaeda attack on the Mukalla prison freed at least 40 militants who were held there. Yemen’s Arab Spring has presented al-Qaeda with many such opportunities to advance its cause.
Government forces launched air strikes on al-Qaeda bases in Zinjibar during September. In retaliation, just three days after Saleh’s return to the country, the regime’s Defence Minister was the victim of a suicide bomb attack on his motor convoy in the port city of Aden – the work of the al-Qaeda faction. The Minister was fortunate to survive, but seven soldiers of his bodyguard perished.
In response, the US has provided huge military aid to Yemen, amounting to $150 million during 2010 alone. This budget had been set to climb to $250 million in 2011, although this has now been put on hold. In addition, American intelligence and strike forces are actively operating in Yemen, with US Predator drones hunting out al-Qaeda targets, and training has been provided to a number of Yemeni military formations. Support has also been given in the campaign in the north against the Houthi. Saleh has welcomed all of this, channelling US aid to security units controlled by members of his family, and keeping it away from those he no longer trusts, including General Mohsin al-Ahmar.
For the US, the fight against al-Qaeda in the Yemen is more important than the internal struggles for power in the country. Drone attacks against al-Qaeda have been increased during recent months, and on 30 September a strike on a road convey in Yemen’s al-Jawf province resulted in the death of Anwar al-Awlaki.
This was the third strike against al-Awlaki in recent weeks, so speculation that the necessary intelligence may have been provided by President Saleh’s security service as part of his bid to stay in power seem far-fetched. The drone stations the US has established in Djibouti, Abu Dhabi and the Seychelles have been targeting the Yemeni Islamist leader for months. The death of al-Awlaki tells us little about Saleh’s strategy, then, but a lot about US priorities.
A FAILED STATE?
All those involved in Yemen’s current crisis do not share a common vision of the future. The protestors taking to the streets, especially the youth elements among them, see the revolt as an opportunity for genuine change to the corrupt political system. They intend to overthrow the regime completely if they can. The diplomatic proposals brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council get no support from these radical protestors, who reject the idea that Saleh should be given any immunity or protection. They want a new constitution and greatly reduced powers for the executive.
The elite factions around Hameed al-Ahmar and General Mohsin, in contrast, have less ambitious goals: they merely wish to replace the authority of Saleh with their own. This would mark a changing of the guard, not a changing of the system.
Radical reform may be what Yemen needs, but the longer that civil war rumbles on the less likely it will be that a peaceful and progressive political transition can be effected. Yemen’s neighbours want a stable settlement, and they would undoubtedly prefer another elite faction to take power than opening the door to radical, popular reforms. The US, too, is anxious lest a populist solution may give further opportunities to al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.
There will be a political settlement that removes Saleh: the question remains how long and bitter the struggle will be? Fears of al-Qaeda, anxieties that Yemen might yet become another Somalia (an unstable failed state), and the strength and conservatism of Saudi Arabia’s influence, are all factors that point to international support for one of the rival factions opposing Saleh.
For the people of Yemen, the Arab Spring has already turned into winter of discontent. And as the country slides towards anarchy, it may prove to be a very long, hard winter ahead.
David M Anderson is Professor of Politics in the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford.