By Matt Murray
September 25, 2011
President Saleh returns; political stalemate continues
As this article was being prepared for publication, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been recuperating in Saudi Arabia following an attack on his palace, returned to Yemen.
Upon his return he called for a truce. Tensions initially flared in Sana’a and then calmed down on Sept. 24, as Saleh ordered the military presence removed from the streets. However newsyemen.net reported that the conflict escalated in Taiz. A military source from the defected army said that pro-Saleh forces attacked the camp of the defecting First Armored Division in Taiz and that over 12 pro-opposition soldiers were killed and dozens were wounded Sept. 24. According to the same source, the protest camp in Taiz was shelled. There is no independent confirmation of this report.
The ongoing crisis in Yemen has ebbed and flowed from a mere smolder at times to a raging inferno at others since the beginning of the “Arab spring” in January. A renewed phase of resurgent violence erupted on Sept. 18. In the capital city of Sana’a, protesters frustrated by months of stalemate defiantly took to the streets and marched outside of a zone protected by sectors of the military that had defected from the side of the government last spring.
In response, pro-government forces led by embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew, Gen. Yahya Saleh, the commander of central security forces, opened fire on unarmed protesters from rooftops and pickup beds with heavy weaponry, including heavy caliber machine guns and rockets. By the end of the day, at least 24 lay dead while 200 or more were gravely wounded.
“I swear to God what happened today is a horrible massacre, and we are not able to even describe it, that the regime would use this violence against peaceful protesters,” said Bassem al-Sharjabi, one of the protest leaders. “This is a crime against humanity.” (The New York Times, Sept. 18)
In the ensuing standoff, street battles raged for three full days as casualties mounted. By Tuesday, 60 or more were dead while countless others were wounded, making this the single deadliest period to date since the conflict began.
In Taiz, the site of a major, under-reported massacre in May in which government forces burned a protest camp, protesters took to the streets Sept. 20 in response to the renewed violence in Sana’a. At least four were killed and 35 injured by bullets and tear gas.
Attempt to impose ceasefire fails
On Sept. 20, in the evening, Yemeni Vice President Abed Rabbo Monsour al-Hadi attempted to impose a cease fire. However, in spite of his decree, the violence continues to rage on.
Al-Hadi has been functioning as acting president on behalf of Saleh, who is currently residing in Saudi Arabia while recuperating from wounds sustained in an attempt on his life by opposition forces in early June.
Prior to the renewed demonstrations and violent repression, negotiations between government and opposition forces were taking place. On Sept. 19, Gulf Cooperation Council head Jamal Benomar arrived in Sana’a to oversee the proceedings. However, leaders from the opposition bloc known as the Joint Meetings Parties, rejected negotiations outright without first having a guarantee of transfer from power for President Saleh. And, in part due to the recent uptick in hostilities, Benomar was forced to depart Yemen on Tuesday with no agreement in hand.
The GCC is essentially a consortium of U.S. puppet governments in the Arab world which has offered Saleh immunity from prosecution if he agrees to cede power, a move which is vehemently opposed by opposition forces.
Meanwhile, the cities of Zinjibar and Taiz have fallen victim to increasing encroachments by government forces in recent weeks. Zinjibar, a coastal city in the province of Abyan, had been under the control of opposition forces since May. However, in early September pro-government forces began an offensive campaign to take back territory in the region. In Taiz, indiscriminate shelling takes place on a nearly daily basis.
“They are not targeting any place,” said medical doctor Abdul-Rahim al-Samie. “They are shooting different houses. Different areas. It was really horrible.” (The New York Times, Sept. 20)
Armed sectors vie for state power
As the struggle continues, what appears to be emerging in Yemen is a three-way struggle for state power among different sectors.
The factions involved include: Saleh loyalists including his son, the elite Republican Guard commander Ahmed Ali Saleh, his nephew, Gen. Yahya Salehcommander of the Yemen’s central security forces, and acting president al-Hadi; the al-Ahmar family led by billionaire telecom tycoon Hamid al-Ahmar and supported by a vast array of tribal militia forces; and the Yemeni Army’s First Armored Division, led by Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar family), which defected from the side of the government this past spring.
General Ahmar’s First Armored Division has provided protection to protesters in a Sana’a sit-in site since March, following a massacre in which pro-government snipers opened fire on unarmed protesters from rooftops, killing at least 52 people. The event triggered a mass defection from the side of the government in many sectors, from civilian to military. (The New York Times, Sept. 18)
General Ahmar and Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali have a particularly tense rivalry. Any future reorganization of a Yemeni state apparatus would almost certainly involve fierce infighting between their respective camps.
Other elements in the struggle include the traditional opposition parties organized into the Joint Meeting Parties. The JMP includes the Yemeni Socialist Party and the major Islamist political party known as Islah.
Distinct from the JMP is the recently emerged movement for democracy that was inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. This movement has drawn in elements from the rural tribes as well as the urban intelligentsia and youth. This movement is largely unarmed; some of its leaders have stated a commitment to non-violence, although some activists have begun to take up weapons.
The incorporation of rural tribesmen into the urban protest movement represented a significant advance in terms of solidarity. Central governments in Yemen have historically not had much authority outside of the urban centers; outside of the cities, real power resided with the tribal leadership.
Pres. Saleh maintained his power in part through his ability to shrewdly manipulate the tribes against one another, as well as by literally paying off the tribal leaders so that they were able to live in luxury, in exchange for the loyalty of their armed tribal members.
Meanwhile, normal life among the tribesmen included blood feuds between tribes; the majority of tribal members live in extreme poverty. In the protest city of Sana’a’s “Change Square” men from rival tribes slept in the same tents and vowed an end to intertribal feuding to forward the struggle to drive out the Salehregime.
Meanwhile, in the north of the country an insurgency has been going on known as the Houthi rebellion, which apparently seeks greater autonomy for the region; in the formerly socialist south, a separatist movement dominated by socialist and Islamist elements has been engaged in struggle as well, although it appears to have merged to some degree with the grassroots pro-democracy movement.
There is some controversy as to the character of the opposition forces that seized control of Zinjibar. Pro-government sources have described them as being Al-Qaeda. There is no doubt that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula exists and operates in Yemen; however, other sources have simply described the elements holding Zinjibar as “Islamic militants.” Other sources say they are Ansar Al-Sharia’a, an Islamic militant group with ties to AQAP. The Saleh regime has been known to exaggerate the threat of AQAP in order to increase U.S. military aid that it could then use for its own purposes.
The difference between Yemen and Libya
The developing crisis in Yemen clearly exposes the cynical truth behind U.S. foreign policy. In sharp contrast to the aggressive stance taken in Libya, U.S. and NATO forces have remained virtually silent and passive on the situation in Yemen.
In its strongest move to date, the U.S. embassy in Yemen issued a mealy mouthed statement calling for “all parties to exercise restraint” and to “refrain from actions that provoke further violence.” (The New York Times, Sept. 19)
Contrast such symbolic but ineffectual verbal statements to the incessant aerial bombardments, the arming of rebel forces and the ongoing hunt for MuammarGaddafi in Libya, and it is clear that the United States fully embraces and even encourages brutal autocratic dictatorships, provided they are sufficiently compliant with U.S. dictates.
What this makes abundantly clear is that the popular masses of Yemen are ultimately the only forces suitable and capable of justly ruling their country. Any other outcome would simply be a superficial change of face from one sector of an exploiting ruling class to another.