February 28, 2011

Saleh Spins Unity Into Division

During the initial week of Egypt’s revolution, as protesters flocked to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, they happened to find themselves aiding the very regimes they ideologically oppose. Test subjects trapped within a maze of government security measures, foreign protesters and dictators alike scan Tunisia and Egypt’s uprisings for tactics to apply and avoid in their own battles.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to learn from Hosni Mubarak’s fall, promising not to run for a fifth term in 2013 and listing economic incentives for the unemployed youth. At first his strategy appeared to work as low turnout kept his concerns to a minimum. President Barack Obama praised Saleh’s “reform” while urging for “concrete action,” and many international observers wrote Yemen off from an Egyptian-style uprising.

Then reality kicked in, exposing these illusions as silencing tactics and turning Saleh into Gaddafi.

Although Obama told Saleh to refrain from violence, over three weeks have passed since he last spoke of Yemen (privately at that). During this time state-controlled and sponsored violence suppressed turnout and killed dozens of protesters, providing a clear rallying point for Saleh’s parliamentary and tribal opposition. After a month of hard campaigning against Yemeni security forces, nearly 200,000 protesters massed for Friday’s “Day of Rage,” considered the largest protest in the country’s history.

Meanwhile White House and State Department websites remain blank.

Now squarely feeling the revolution’s heat, Saleh is reverting to typical authoritarian fear tactics. First blaming the opposition for failing to negotiate - even though he both breaks and fails to deliver on his promises - Yemen’s endangered president unleashed his standard one-two punch. With the international media magnifying the impression that Saleh’s tribal allies are abandoning him, he’s now pointing to these same fractures as proof that a war looms in his absence.

And condemning the "attempt to split the country into north and south” - the Houthis and Southern Movement.

"There is a conspiracy against Yemen's unity and territorial integrity and we, in the armed forces, have served to preserve the republican regime with every drop of blood we have,” Saleh warned, a second place finish to “al-Qaeda is behind Libya's unrest.”

Oddly, Saleh has downplayed the Hashid tribe’s trigger even as he threatens instability. Last week Sheikh Hussein al Ahmar, a powerful chief in the Hashid and a member of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC), promised to summon his militia if violence against protesters continued. In the wake of new bloodshed, Hussein threw his full weight behind Friday’s “Day of Rage”: “I'm announcing my resignation from the ruling party, party of corruption, and my joining to the revolution of the young people until this regime is toppled.”

GPC officials and analysts were quick to paint Hussein as a “black sheep” and a rogue, labeling his move as a publicity stunt. They even use the recent violence to denounce his oath to protect protesters. Some Yemeni analysts expect the Hashid to switch back to Saleh’s side when he pays them again, while other Hashid leaders renounced Hussein’s actions as his own. Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a prominent Yemeni political analyst, told Al Jazeera, "It subtracts from the power of what was a popular political protest... it makes it more militaristic and regional."

al-Iryani appears to be referencing Saleh’s own threat of tribal warfare: the possibility that the Hashid will summon tens of thousands of armed tribesman to the capital. And since Yemen’s military is comprised a significant number of Hashid, the additional fear looms of mass defects to the protesters’ side. Saleh is rightfully nervous as Yemen’s most powerful tribe unites against him. Beyond Hussein lies his brother Sadeq, the 'Sheikh of Sheikhs,” who tacitly moved to the protesters’ side by advocating, “I'm the brother of all."

Their brother Hamid eyes Saleh’s position.

Yemen’s various tribes and political actors clearly hope to exploit the wider opposition movement for their own personal gains. This, however, isn’t abnormal during a revolution. Everyone wants something and Saleh happens to stand in the way of it all. Predicting the future actions of Yemen’s tribes cannot be achieved strictly through their histories. The revolution’s overriding lesson is to trap the government in the aggressor role, and to never cede the moral high-ground. Mass civil-disobedience can overpower weak autocracies.

Saleh's contrast couldn’t be more delusional, playing the division card just as Yemen’s opposition is finally attempting to unify. A civil war remains possible because he's promising one.

So is Saleh setting up a counterattack to his own tribe’s “renegades?” through the threat of civil war? Evidence to the affirmative already unfolds in southern Yemen, particularly the port city of Aden, where most killings have occurred. The secessionist Southern Movement’s stronghold is haunted by Saleh’s security forces, now trained by the U.S., who periodically arrest its leaders and suppress its supporters under the threat of AQAP. Yesterday Saleh blamed Aden’s violence on “mercenaries” and the SM, saying, "They are now destroying every nice thing in Aden, for nothing but selfishness and remnants of colonialism.”

Simultaneously, sources told the Yemen Post that at least five SM leaders have just been arrested in Aden. With Yemen’s diverse opposition now attempting to coalesce, Saleh has twisted “unity” into his own slogan. But in the south’s case, “unity” is code for crackdown.

For these reasons and others, none of Yemen’s opposition will pay much attention to Saleh’s latest propaganda - except to plan their security. Few believe his promise not to seek another term or expect him to restore Yemen’s decayed economy. Their plights vary yet Saleh’s treatment remains consistent: violence, poverty, corruption, marginalization, and indignity. Tens of thousands continue to march across the country, in the northern cities of Ibb and Hudeida, and in Aden and Taiz. Houthis have begun to join the youth at Sana' university. And Yemen's main opposition group, the Joint Parties Meeting, has announced nationwide rallies for Tuesday.

This is real unity.

How far Yemen’s opposition goes in reducing Saleh's power remains to be seen, as does his reaction. But with his days ticking down, the likeliest fuse of civil war stems from himself.

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