Today, as they have for the last seven months of Fridays, pro-democracy protesters flooded into Yemen’s urban centers to demand the end of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. Local and foreign estimates of Friday range in the millions, with mass protests occurring in Sana’a, Taiz, Ibb, Hudaydah, Aden, Saada, and Marib (16 out of 21 governorates). Bolstered by their fellow revolutionaries, protesters waved Libyan and Syrian flags as they marched down the streets.
Yemenis have taken great pride in the peaceful nature of their revolution, which highlights a friendly populace rather than widespread extremism. They also realize that Saleh will use the smallest act of violence to start a larger war, whether against protesters or anti-government tribesmen (which aren’t mutually exclusive from each other). However the combination of an unflinching Saleh, an unresponsive international community and Gaddafi’s flight is leading more protesters to question the need for escalation.
Also known as the “Friday of escalating the revolt” or “Friday of revolutionary escalation,” Western press recorded chants such as “escalation is a must for a quick ending of regime,""Yemen will follow Libya's footsteps,” and "Sana’a revolt, revolt towards the presidential palace.”
Despite numerous debates over this specific tactic, the revolution’s popular core still considers a sure death march as the last resort. Many protesters that we’ve spoken to remain committed to a peaceful downfall of the regime; escalation takes on a non-violent meaning, intensifying protests and media operations rather than picking up arms. Nevertheless, a growing minority believes that the revolution can only be brought to a favorable conclusion through force. Hasan Zaid, secretary-general of the opposition Haq party, observed, "No real revolution can prosper peacefully from history's experience.”
Zaid withdrew his party from the Joint Meeting Parties’ (JMP) National Council, formed on August 17th to consolidate the revolution’s diverse elements. Although the NC represents a necessary step forward, the JMP stands justifiably accused of pursuing its own interests through the same individuals.
One of these individuals, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, is making the revolutionaries’ task more difficult by advocating violent escalation. Having defected from Saleh’s side in March, Ali Mohsen is still trying to convince protesters of his sincerity. The general served as Saleh’s fist as he cracked down on the northern Houthi insurgency, and harbors political ambitions to the extent that Saleh attempted to kill Mohsen as he fought the president’s battles. Saudi pilots aborted their bombing run after realizing they had been fed false coordinates.
After a series of confrontational statements released over the past month, Mohsen marked Eied with the following threat: "We know that the revolution will need military interference, and we will work to make it happen.”
Protesters might need Mohsen’s muscle and even think alike, but most want nothing to do with the general. While thankful for tribal protection, many protesters oppose the JMP’s elements nearly as much as Saleh’s regime, believing their peaceful revolution has been hijacked by all sides. As an easy target for the regime, Mohsen’s advocation of violence makes the protesters’ job that much harder than it already is. Popular escalation could overwhelm Saleh and would leave him with fewer excuses to crackdown, but a military operation by Mohsen’s 1st Armored Division would automatically green-light a new round of suppression.
Not only has Saleh’s regime split the blame of his assassination attempt between Mohsen and Hamid al-Ahmar, an influential tribal leader operating freely within the JMP, the general is used as a scapegoat to associate the revolution with al-Qaeda. Government officials have condemned him for harboring al-Qaeda operatives inside Change Square in Sana’a, and also for sending reinforcements to the southern front. Both claims are highly suspect even for Mohsen’s behavior, but they do set the stage for a military showdown.
The end result generates escalation on all sides. Mohsen’s forces are buttressed by the al-Ahmar family’s private militia, both of which are increasing their numbers in the capital. Mohsen and the al-Ahmars (Hamid and his older brother Sadiq, who heads the Hashid tribe) don’t share a blood connection but are working together politically; many of the al-Ahmar’s recent statements were issued from Mohsen’s army camp in Sana’a. The tribe has secured its neighborhoods in the Hasaba and Hadda areas as government planes fly overhead, a show of force as Saleh continues to hint at his return.
Pro-government tribesmen are also gathering on the capital’s outskirts, with locals warning of a raid on Change Square.
Complicating Yemen’s environment even further, security officials now warn that al-Qaeda militants are beginning to move into Lajh governorate after losing ground in Abyan. As a stomping ground of the secessionist Southern Movement, Lajh’s population has enthusiastically joined in the revolution against Saleh’s regime. The Yemen Post doesn’t mince words in reporting, “Residents are on high alert fearing that the government is planning to evacuate its thousands of troops like it did in Abyan and force the province to fall in the hands of militants.”
An explanation of Saleh’s scheme in the south can be found here.
All of this escalation traces back to Saleh’s personal duplicity, his refusal to resign and U.S.-Saudi support for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has stalled Yemen’s revolution through the JMP. The Obama administration is guilty of its own escalation: ongoing political and military support for Saleh. While peaceful protesters have yet to consciously follow Libya’s revolutionaries, internal and external forces have left them no choice except to escalate their activities.
In a rare report by The New York Times, defected military officer Abdul Rahaman Abdullah promised, “It’s been seven months and we are going to stay here even if the rest of the world doesn’t stand with us.”