Yemen’s popular uprising is now eight months old and has begun to look more like a power struggle among elites and a clash that could turn into civil war.
Once again, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has reneged on a promise to step down because he does not want his political opponents to run for election. Back in Sana’a after a three-month absence for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for injuries he received in a bomb blast, the president is unbowed by months of protests demanding he step down.
Protesters are frustrated because the president repeatedly called for elections and a peaceful exchange of power but failed to promise to step down. With such uncertainty and fighting between heavily armed loyalists and foes of President Saleh, the prospects of a democracy are growing slim.
U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen for a year and started his Foreign Service office in the Middle East in 1975, warns that the domestic conflict could deteriorate rapidly if there is no progress on the political front.
Most experts agree that the only practical road map for a political solution to the instability and conflict is a proposal made by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The plan calls on President Saleh to transfer power to his vice president for a two-month transition that would end with new presidential elections. The plan also calls for an end to the protests, the formation of a national unity government led by a member of the opposition, and amnesty for President Saleh, his family and his aides.
Although he has several times promised to resign, he has changed his mind each time, leading to more anger on the streets, where protests have escalated since January.
Gloomy factors on the ground
“You cannot have a transition to democracy in the midst of a civil war and this is what the situation in Yemen is looking like more and more,” said Marina Ottaway, a democracy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ottaway detected some gloomy factors on the ground in Yemen.
First, there is a divided army with troops who are faithful to President Saleh and those with Major General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, who severed ties with the president in March.
Second, there’s also a continued insurgency, including a secessionist movement in the South, the Shi'ite Houthi rebels in the North, and the Yemeni wing of Al-Qaida.
Third, protesters continue to flood the streets who are relentlessly demanding democracy but have no power when confronted with violence and force.
Fourth, structural economic problems, the country running out of oil and water, and weak institutions will all contribute to more instability.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen David Newton agrees. “The situation in Yemen is messy, violent, and there is a great danger of collapse in Yemen; they really do need a negotiated solution, not a civil war,” he said.
“I think they are sliding back, at least to more violence because, while the president may not want to hang onto power himself, he is trying to ensure that his family will largely remain in power.”
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh delivers his speech on state television in this still image taken from video, October 8, 2011.
The Saleh regime is noted for nepotism: Saleh’s son is commander of the Republican Guard, his nephew commands the Special Guards, and other nephews command the National Security Agency and the national tobacco company. In-laws, cousins, brothers and step-brothers direct the Yemeni Oil Company, Yemeni Airways and serve in many cabinet positions.
Ambassador Newton noticed that the opposition is focused on one major issue: to change the regime. However, he pointed to several other problems including tribalism, lack of unity among opposition elements, structural problems when it comes to the economy, resources, state institutions and huge social problems related to increased levels of poverty.
Bleak future on the horizon
“Those are certainly the problems that are not going to disappear. They plagued Yemen under Saleh and they are not going away automatically even if there should be a political agreement,” said Ottaway. “The economy is in shambles and that is not a temporary crisis. But there is something fundamentally wrong with the economy, especially when Yemen is running out of oil and water.”
The head of the powerful Hashid tribe, Sheikh Sadique al-Ahmar, center, surrounded by guards, attends the funerals of tribesmen, who were killed in clashes with Yemeni security forces, in Sana'a, May 27, 2011.
Experts, such as Ottaway and Newton, believe that Saudi Arabia has to use its great influence in Yemen, including with the Al Ahmar tribe, other tribal leaders, and with President Saleh and his military leaders to expedite a political solution to avoid a full-scale civil war.
Other experts argue that the United States and Saudi Arabia should cooperate to avoid a power vacuum that could endanger their interests in Yemen. Their chief concerns are keeping al-Qaida at bay and supporting a post-Saleh government to start solving its economic problems.
Ambassador Feierstein argues that with food and fuel prices rising globally, and the economic impact of the current prolonged political uncertainty, Yemenis will encounter tough challenges. ”The government, the private sector, and the friends of Yemen should all pay attention to the urgency of addressing these critical economic challenges,” he said.
Experts agree that securing a political solution in Yemen could encourage international donors to commit funds to develop the country and lend a hand to reduce Yemen’s endemic poverty.