He wasn’t joking.
Like other foreign journalists streaming into Yemen, Haley Edwards didn’t receive a friendly welcome from the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. “Are you going to write nice stories?” asked the customs agent before finally approving her entry. Edwards, a freelance contributor to The Los Angeles Times and traveler of the enigmatic nation, answered in the negative by broadcasting Saleh’s orchestrated violence and intimidation to the world.
Finally deported on March 14th along with another journalist and two cameramen, the Yemeni government issued a standard denial before accusing the group of “illegal” visitation. Security forces had, of course, stalked them from the beginning.
In the fear-based reality of Saleh’s universe, “not being nice” to the government offers grounds for punishment, which many Yemenis have endured over 32 years of stable instability. Anyone opposing Saleh’s domination risked suppression under the threat of civil war or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemen’s diverse opposition was fragmented with relative ease through a mixture of patronage, bribery, coercion, and brute force. A mutated roshambo where Saleh always held the upper fist, quarters of the country found themselves trapped under each resilient finger. No singular opponent could be allowed to divide Yemen again, lest everyone else follow their example.
Fear became the denominator of unity.
Yemen’s history (or any, for that matter) is too deep to examine in an contained analysis. Suffice to say, Yemen’s desperate parts had become unbearably agitated under Saleh’s rule by 2009. The northern-based Houthis, an insurgent group following the Zaydi school of Shi’a Islam, had suffered four cycles of conflict and were perched on a fifth with Saleh, himself a Zaydi Shia. To the south, the secessionist-minded Southern Movement (SM) faced continual suppression amid a semi-declared war-zone. Saleh’s unfulfilled promises had degenerated into a state of lawlessness in the southern governorates of Abyan (now partially under AQAP control) and Shebwah, where it’s dangerous to drive in a state vehicle.
Once U.S. Special Forces and CIA moved in to train Saleh’s counter-terrorism squads, they were abruptly deployed to these two theaters. According to recently released WikiLeaks from 2009, Saleh belatedly corrected his priorities during a meeting with Stephen R. Kappes, former deputy director of the CIA. When asked to rank the threats to Yemen’s security, Saleh initially assigned the Houthis, SM, and AQAP to “the same level,” then paused and placed AQAP atop his list. Ambassador Stephen A. Seche admits that Saleh’s decision “to reverse himself” was “almost certainly taken with his USG interlocutors in mind...”
“Nor was it coincidental,” Seche concluded, “that Saleh was quick to blame foreign powers for the nation's woes. From the U.K., Qatar and Libya aiding the southerners, to Iran and Hizballah engineering the Houthi rebellion in the north, to an international terrorist conspiracy fueling AQAP's growth, the implication is that Yemen is beset by forces that it will be hard-pressed to repel without substantial external support. This argument is, of course, also tailored to Saleh's USG audience, and meant to elicit the necessary level of political, economic and military assistance to forestall Yemen's collapse, and the negative effects it would have on regional stability and security.”
Saleh deftly exploited this argument locally and in foreign capitals to buttress his rule after Yemen’s last civil war, in 1994. When he wasn’t busy pitting tribes against each other and encouraging revenge killings, he was bribing them into temporarily obedience. To Yemen’s tribal and urban population, and later to the U.S. government, Saleh threatened a Somali-like meltdown in the event that the Houthis or SM attempted to secede. Never truly attempting to unify the country or develop its infrastructure, Saleh divided each of his opponents into their own manageable quarters and left them to stew.
Seeds of a revolution
Now the ground beneath Saleh is quaking, the sky is falling on his head and his world has flipped upside-down since January 17th, the first of activist Tawakkol Karman’s many protests. The primal fear of revolution offers a fitting conclusion to those rulers who survive through threats and abuse. Although dictators live in constant fear, regime change provides a final fright to balance the cosmic scales. Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Saleh are typical bullies found in Western cartoons. Having beaten up their peers one by one, the oppressed inevitably unite and overpower their neighborhood tyrant. Justice is ultimately delivered.
While Saleh may have been the only man capable of holding Yemen’s parts together, his temporary rule came with the price of inevitable collapse. Once Yemenis lost all fear and Saleh lost his primary weapon, the masses turned to prey on him.
Much as a volcano or fault-line stores energy unseen to the naked eye, Yemen’s stagnant opposition has revived itself with an influx of pent-up anger. This energy gradually increased between 2001, 2005 and 2009 before exploding in 2011, as Saleh’s grip on power tightened without relief. His money supply had begun to dry up along with Yemen’s water and oil reserves, turning an economic crisis into a catastrophe. Although he felt the rumblings, Saleh decided not to take them any more seriously than the previous 17 years of dissent. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary - except the pieces of his unsustainable equilibrium had finally begun to crumble.
A late 2009 cable summarized, “Like other Saleh watchers, 'xxxxx' characterizes the multitude of threats facing Saleh as qualitatively different and more threatening to the regime's stability than those during any other time in Yemen's history. Saleh is overwhelmed, exhausted by the war, and more and more intolerant of internal criticism...”
To the north, Saleh found himself unable to restore control to Houthi territory. Saudi Arabia reluctantly pitched in with warplanes and ground troops, disdainfully labeling Saleh as “the Devil we know,” while Washington passed along ammunition and trained counter-terrorism units that would deploy far from AQAP. Only part propaganda, Saleh’s appeal to Riyadh stemmed from the real belief that he couldn’t defeat the Houthis by himself; he was eventually forced into an uneasy truce that is currently void.
By this time he had already lost control of much of the south. The port city of Aden, now a hotbed of protests, has long been openly hostile to security forces.
Meanwhile Saleh’s oil resources had dwindled, forcing him to increasingly rely on siphoned foreign aid to bribe neutral and potentially hostile tribes. A new U.S. aid package was supposed to alleviate his personal deficit, but one elder in the Baqil tribe, one of Yemen’s two main tribes, succinctly explained, “Buying is forever, renting is just temporary.” Many tribal figures have since drawn attention to the timing of Saleh’s shortfall and his unveiling of AQAP, a feeling that carries over to the present.
“It’s obvious that Al-Qaeda appeared after the president said ‘Yemen is a time bomb,’” says Naji Al-Sumi, head of the political department of the Islah Party in Al-Jawf governorate. “Then the security withdrew in preparation for Al-Qaeda to appear.”
Obsessed with his main foes, Saleh committed the final mistake of ignoring Yemen’s unemployed, urban youth. As the cash ran out and no improvements were made to their communities, tribal leaders entered a perfect mindset to join the revolution’s energetic core in Sana’a. Tribal leaders now speak of how they cannot accept monetary offers to return home. Saleh has dishonored their name by killing the Yemeni people, thus they cannot accept his bribes without losing their own tribes’ legitimacy. At a practical level they know Saleh is tapped out and few payments will follow, just as the youth views Saleh’s belated economic incentives as fraudulent.
Long on enemies and short on allies, the scales finally tipped against Yemen's embattled president. A revolution becomes a dog pile as the opposition attempts to collectively outweigh the regime, and everyone saw an opportunity to jump on. Now Saleh is being conquered by those he tried to divide.
Beginning of the end
Mirroring the decades-long culmination of resentment and poverty, Yemen’s revolution has fueled itself on a series of tipping points, each one driving towards the point of no return. First came Karman’s January 16th protest to commemorate Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. Her arrest on the 23rd catapulted the early phase of protesters into the streets, who weathered a lull before Mubarak’s fall re-ignited them again. Yemenis began to truly believe they could replicate their Egyptian brothers and sisters.
Despite the popular rage, Yemen’s political opposition initially attempted to dictate their terms and control the demonstrations. Hamid al-Ahmar, a wealthy leader within Saleh’s Hashid tribe, immediately jumped into the driver's seat. As a political figure in both the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and Islah party, Hamid initially attempted to quell the revolution’s energy into a manageable force. The pace of Egypt’s revolution, which initially outstripped the political opposition’s capabilities, hadn’t been lost on him.
At first many figures within his tribe rejected his position, while outsiders labeled him as an opportunistic strongman of Saudi Arabia. But Hamid threatened to summon his militia, supposedly up to 10,000 men, after Saleh continued his crackdown on peaceful protesters. Other tribes began to flock to Sanaa. Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, head of the Council of Islamic Clerics and Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood, defected from Saleh’s side on March 1st (al-Zindani is allegedly connected to AQAP). Widespread political defections began on March 5th, while the March 8th gassing incident at Sanaa University triggered a new level of popular support.
Initially assumed to be tear gas, fears of nerve gas developed after lingering symptoms of convulsion and blindness. Although no definitive study has been conducted, the probable scenario is overexposure to a high concentration of CN gas, which Saleh's security forces continue to employ in closed spaces.
With support pouring in from all corners of Yemen’s society, Saleh vainly turned to his secondary tactic of foreign conspiracies. But instead of the usual Iranian-Houthi connection, Saleh privately shocked the White House by blaming his crumbling position on “control rooms” in Washington and Tel Aviv. Predictably recanting after hitting this dead-end, Saleh has since tried to pin his problems on foreign media, specifically Al Jazeera. The organization, which is forced to hide its reporters’ identities, has operated under a ban throughout the revolution and suffered attacks on its personnel and facilities.
More than a few journalists were thrown out of Yemen during February and March, but the media too has enjoyed the last laugh. Not every Western reporter can be rounded up, and it seems Al Jazeera cannot be stopped. Singled out by Saleh as a “Zionist” tool long before the revolution started, Al Jazeera has broadcast daily footage of demonstrations and clashes with regime elements. No protester believes Saleh when he blames the country’s political and economic unrest on foreign media, or when he denied government defections as media fabrications.
Somehow Al Jazeera became the leading news site in Yemen.
A culmination of incidents set the stage for March 18th, widely assumed as the revolutions ’s climatic tipping point. After snipers fired upon a crowd as security forces looked on, an attack that left at least 45 people dead, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar finally stepped over to the protesters’ side. The leader of the Hashid tribe assured that Hamid was no longer off playing president in his own world. General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Saleh’s fist against the Houthis, joined the protesters a day later.
As more tribes flocked to the demonstrations, they came under social pressure to settle their differences. Bribes were refused while tribes pledged to guard oil pipelines and opposition-controlled government facilities. Proximity has breed familiarity, further reducing tribal barriers. The northern Al-Jawf and Al-Otmi tribes have supposedly ended their 30-year cycle of revenge killings. Although the Murad and Abeeda tribes from Marib share a similar history of revenge, they now share one tent at Al-Tagheer Square. All of them blame Saleh for “creating crises” between them.
“The amazing thing," says Al-Sumi, "is that it was the tribal position that brought balance to the political game."
Nearly surrounded on all sides, Saleh hasn’t been so obtuse as to ignore the revolution completely. Hoping to deplete its energy through concessions, Saleh chose Mubarak’s shadow tactics over Gaddafi’s open warfare in order to avoid surrender. Yemen’s defiant president maintains an open stance towards negotiations geared to his terms, mainly a time-table for resignation, to ward off his immediate departure. His concept of an “orderly, democratic” transition is the same advocated by Washington.
Yet Saleh’s repressive stall tactics are responsible for his own demise, making the justice so poetic.
White House scrambles emergency response
Given that Washington and Riyadh constituted his sole backstop, the final hammer came down after the March 18th sniper incident. The Obama administration could handle Saleh’s personal taunts, misappropriated arms, and social marginalization - public policy and the flow of WikiLeaks reveals the depth of Washington’s tolerance. But the loss of tribal support awoke the White House from its slumber. The realization set in that Saleh wouldn’t survive, and that his stalling allowed AQAP to seize enough territory in Abyan to declare an Islamic Emirate. The narrative that Saleh made America safer had burnt up.
Attempting to counter months of relative silence, U.S. officials continue to argue, “We do not build our policy in any country around a single person.” They aren’t fooling Yemenis at this point; even the U.S. media is having trouble ignoring the White House’s prolonged silence, though it is doing an impressive job. WikiLeaks show that Washington knew most, if not all, of Saleh’s offenses and chalked them up to the costs of doing business in the “War on Terror.”
This was never a stable arrangement, but an unnatural alliance doomed to collapse at a certain point. Believing that Saleh could withstand the opposition's energy indefinitely committed a colossal strategic error. As it turned out, he didn’t last two years under Washington’s beefed-up counter-terrorism.
WikiLeaks’ trail paints a horrendous picture of strategic blindness, and media reports indicate that the Obama administration only recently turned against Saleh after giving him countless chances. With America plummeting from the moral high-ground and AQAP seizing literal ground, the White House finally submitted and phoned Riyadh to plot another “orderly transition." Step one was pasting Egypt’s brief power transfer to Omar Suleiman onto Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi, Saleh’s vice president of 17 years, or another of Saleh's men. The plan has only worked for the moment and, in calling for a 30 day time-table, will set up a showdown inside the opposition. After Ali-Mohsen announced his approval along with al-Ahmar, the JMP tentatively accepted a plan they put forward weeks ago.
"We know that the protesters have objection to the plan as they want to prosecute President Saleh for the previous clashes that left dozens killed or injured," spokesman Mohamed Qahtan assured, "we in the JMP can guarantee that after Saleh steps aside, we will convince the protesters to accept the new situation and to show mercy on Saleh for the sake of a new Yemen."
Yemen’s popular opposition has steadfastly rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) overtures until Saleh resigns. This was a man who, just before the revolution, eyed the removal of term limits, a move Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was forced to condemn during a rare visit to Sana'a. Saleh has already rewarded the JMP, the only opposition group he's willing to talk to, with the usual slander of "bandits" and criminals."
The JMP automatically responded by backing away from the GCC's plan - a pragmatic decision that inevitably plays into Saleh's stall tactics.
Beyond al-Qaeda's threat
Both in foresight and hindsight, Saleh’s collapse was distinctly visible to all save for himself and U.S. policy-makers in Washington. The Saudis and CIA handlers on the ground perceived the difference in energy. So did tribal leaders such as Hamid, who told U.S. embassy officials in 2009 that a revolution was coming in 2011. U.S. officials nevertheless continued to view Yemen as "stable enough," and shared in the local belief that Yemenis couldn’t unite the way they have.
The revolution’s swiftness proves how ripe the country truly was.
What comes next seems to concern people more than how Yemen reached its current point. Although a legitimate question, it tends to ignore the introspection needed to answer it. AQAP and Islamic extremism inevitably crop up first in U.S. circles, automatically limiting the debate. True, Yemen’s heightened unity has yet to express itself fully to the international world. Speaking for the Houthis, Southern Movement, various tribes, urban youth, and political opposition is predictably challenging. Nor can any possibility be ruled out during a revolution.
However, a growing body of evidence suggests that Yemen isn’t headed towards civil war or an Islamic caliphate under AQAP’s domination. While the opposition has yet to discover a leader capable of speaking for the whole, Ali-Mohsen (also linked to AQAP) and al-Zindani are viewed as pawns rather than kings. The opposition simply needed to borrow their weight; neither are considered serious candidates for the future presidency. Numerous oppositional figures have also pledged to continue the fight against AQAP, and the coalition adopted a demand that it withdraw from Abyan, to be enforced by the new political authority and local tribes.
In the streets march burqa-clad women chanting for democracy - chanting to men - something that Saleh himself labeled "unIslamic." At the revolution’s core sit optimistic, educated 20-somethings ready to build a real state.
Yemenis still want America’s help too. They know the U.S. government has its hands in the country’s problems, thus opening a spot in the revolution’s conclusion. Only after the March 8th crackdown did sentiment turn openly hostile towards Washington, pressure that had accumulated over the last month (and years). But beyond the occasional anti-American chant or sign, Yemenis remain open to U.S. support so long as it’s on their terms.
Like many inside and outside the country, Edwards guards the hopeful feeling that Yemenis can stay united after Saleh’s fall. Unresolved political and tribal divisions, the unholy alliance between the Hashid and Houthis, the wild-card SM, and local sympathy for AQAP could turn Yemenis on each other once Saleh is removed from the equation. They could also realize - as every faction claims - that Saleh was playing them off each other. A more permanent balance may be achieved without his regime.
These arrogant rulers falsely believe they can hold back the forces of nature, including the human spirit. To underestimate that spirit is to recommit Saleh’s fatal error.
Of course what comes next in Yemen will experience its chaotic moments. That’s how revolution works. But Saleh expects to know who he’s passing his power to before giving it up, a decision that isn’t his to make after 32 years. Nor is it Washington or the GCC’s. For better or worse Yemen’s future must be decided by its diverse people. Saleh’s legacy will set with one positive: triggering a revolution in the first place.
No one will forget the hunt for freedom.