August 15, 2011

Breaking Down Yemen’s Chain Reaction

As U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein persistently spins the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative as a real transfer of power in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to prove why Yemen’s revolutionaries reject foreign mediation. Despite generous support from Washington and Riyadh, including months of patience and a favorable severance package, Saleh’s security forces have yet to halt their assault on peaceful protesters and anti-government tribesmen. Contrary to statements from U.S. officials and a servile American media, Saleh hasn’t agreed to sign the GCC’s initiative “three times.”

Whether fearful of losing his U.S.-sponsored immunity, insistent on replacing Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi with his son, Ahmed, or favoring snap “constitutional elections” in place of a transitional period, he can only think of reasons not to sign the GCC’s initiative.

Monday’s sequence of events offers the latest reason to never trust Ali Saleh’s regime. While the White House and Pentagon maintain their coordinated support with Saudi and EU officials, Yemeni officials are busy slandering the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) - Saleh’s partner in negotiating the GCC’s terms. By exploiting the unpopular JMP as Yemen’s legitimate political opposition, Washington and Riyadh have temporarily circumvented the revolutionaries demanding total regime change. Meanwhile Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) periodically blames the JMP for supporting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), corrupting the youth and now the assassination on Saleh’s presidential palace.

The end result is that Saleh both refuses to negotiate with and will only negotiate with the JMP, jamming Yemen’s political system from moving forward.

Faced with unflattering reports of Saleh’s GCC “amendments” and “U.S. pressure,” the GPC decided that it could no longer wait to directly strike the al-Ahmars. In an interview with Sultan al-Barakani, head of the GPC’s parliamentary bloc, the ruling party confidently declared, "There is no longer room for doubt that Hamid al-Ahmar is the prime suspect in the sinful assassination attempt to which the president of the republic and a number of officials were subjected.” Although this accusation isn’t new, it does appear to mark the beginning of a concentrated push against Hamid.

As heads of Yemen’s Hashid tribe and power-brokers within the Islah party, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar and his brother are considered primary threats to Saleh’s regime, along with defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the al-Ahmars). Hamid in particular has received extensive financial support from Riyadh, adding to a billion-dollar services empire inherited from his father, Sheikh Abdullah bin Husayn bin Nasser al-Ahmar. Hamid was one of the first tribal leaders to join the revolutionary square in Sana’a, when his militia vowed to protect protesters in early March. Many Hashid leaders initially branded him as a Saudi-backed opportunist (which he may be), but Sadiq was forced to join him after the heinous March 18th massacre in Change Square.

Most of Yemen’s tribes followed suit, bulking up the revolution’s muscle. Unfortunately for the revolutionaries, the al-Ahmars’ personal history also serves as a natural lightning rod for Saleh’s regime.

Accusing Hamid of orchestrating Saleh’s assassination bid achieves multiple objectives through the regime’s eyes. First and foremost, many Yemenis suspect an inside job from one of Saleh’s nephews or half-brothers, feeding rumors of internal plotting. Thus Saleh seeks to counter these impressions by scapegoating Hamid, who now relieves the blame from Mohsen. Yemen’s besieged ruler has demanded the exit of both Mohsen and Hamid, and with Saleh insisting that Ahmed oversee a transition, he seeks to eliminate at least one major competitor during the ruckus.

Hamid quickly re-countered by labeling the assassination a familial plot “to consolidate their inheritance of power.”

That Saleh’s Republican Guard, commanded by Ahmed, continues its assault on anti-government tribes around Sana’a provides a final excuse to slander the al-Ahmars (and by extension the JMP). Having sufficiently obstructed the JMP’s own transitional council, announced in mid-July, the government now aims to destroy to the next oppositional construct. Weeks of bombardment and human rights abuses, including the desecration of corpses and blocking of ambulances, eventually spurred the al-Ahmars to form the Alliance of Yemeni Tribes, a move immediately condemned by the government.

Many protesters also remain leery of the alliance, accepting its protection but opposing violent escalation, and Saleh is presumably hoping to exploit popular distrust of the al-Ahmars - even though the JMP’s disapproval doesn’t have much room to fall.

While the Houthis appear to be stretching their propaganda too thin, the group’s latest accusation illustrates the limits of the JMP’s trust gap, along with the width of America’s. On Sunday a “suspected al-Qaeda car bomb” detonated at the main gate of a Houthi-seized government compound in Matamma district, in the northern Al-Jouf governorate. The bombing came two days after Houthi and Islah officials brokered a ceasefire, leading both sides to accuse a third party of provoking sectarian conflict. Once Islah denied any role in the “terrorist attack,” the Houthis released a statement (and no evidence) warning of a “US intelligence-style criminal act.”

This is telling propaganda considering that AQAP has claimed recent attacks on the Houthis; the Shia sect would be going far out of its way to maintain a unified front with Islah. More likely, the Houthis truly suspect a U.S./Saudi agent whose mission is to “help maintain the unjust regime.” Both governments have assisted in suppressing the insurgency, imposing a siege mentality that many Yemenis can relate to.

Ultimately Saleh’s regime is launching every available missile to target the JMP, including Mohsen’s private militia. The government even accuses Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, a suspected al-Qaeda cleric and JMP representative, of sending “terrorists” to fight Yemeni security forces. al-Zindani used to stand on Saleh’s side before joining the revolution in February, although he lacks popular support from the revolutionaries. Rather than demonize the opposition to Yemenis or the international community, which is already handcuffed to the JMP, Saleh appears to be concentrating on provocation. Clearly he has no intention of signing the GCC’s initiative as is, and seems just as unlikely to sign an amended version.

Instead Saleh continues to believe that he can nullify the proposal completely, by antagonizing the JMP politically or militarily. The sum of these factors demonstrates al-Hadi’s negligible authority over Saleh’s regime; contrary to Feierstein’s vote of confidence, he is not fit to transfer power to a democratic body. The transition must take place only under a council approved by the revolutionaries, not Saleh’s ideal “transition.”

A full briefing on Yemen’s revolution will be published shortly.


  1. It is understandable that many yemeníes do not wish to see a civil war in their country. But a state, after all, is only a body of armed men who protect property and privilege. The ruling class will only surrender their power and privilege if the correlation of forces is so adverse as to render resistance an exercise in futility. Ultimately, only the elites can decide if a revolution will be peaceful or not. Revolutionaries must be prepared to defend themselves. He who desires the end must accept the means. The means for emancipating the people is revolutionary violence. Only sentimental fools can suppose that the people are in danger of exaggerating the role of revolutionary violence and showing excessive admiration for the methods of revolutionary terrorism. On the contrary, what the people lack are, precisely, understanding of the liberatory role of revolutionary violence. That is the very reason why the people still remain in slavery. Pacifist propaganda among the yemeni revolutionaries leads only to weakening of their will, and helps counter-revolutionary violence, armed to the teeth, to continue.

  2. We have come across this position many times in speaking with Yemenis, although those favoring a peaceful struggle outnumber their counterparts. I think the main fear isn't tarnishing the revolution's legacy, so much as Saleh's exploitation of their violence to further his own. Yemen's armed oppositional elements could defeat Saleh's forces if they operated in greater unity, however the force remains ad hoc despite numerous attempts to organize. The revolutionaries also won't support escalation from the al-Ahmars or Mohsen until peaceful means are totally exhausted.

    But many successful revolutions, including America's, necessitated a large degree of force.