Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ending The Yemen Bloodshed

A long-term political solution needs to take into account southern ambitions and the aspirations of the youth 

By Francis Matthew 
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 02/06/2011 

There has been a genuine Arab Spring in Yemen as thousands of young people took to the streets over the past two months, but they have lost the initiative to established power groups. The way forward now does not look like being an interim government based on a popular movement, but more of a transfer to tribal or military leaders, and even that is looking less likely as civil war looms.

A large part of the Gulf Cooperation Council's most recent mediation efforts in April were based on trying to get President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to a combination of individuals with positions in the political and tribal structures. Saleh refused completely to contemplate giving power away to what he saw as the chaos of the incoherent groups of young people on the streets, and the GCC took this into account when it framed its suggestions of an interim government based on established figures.
But Saleh rejected the GCC deal at the last minute, which infuriated the GCC foreign ministers who had spent months trying to address his objections. It, therefore, seems that Saleh has made a rough calculation that the GCC with its American and European allies need him in place more than he needs to follow its suggestions. He probably thinks he has enough support to resist the opposition, and so feels able to ride out the storm.

But as more and more tribal and military leaders rise up against him, Saleh may have got it wrong. He might be heartened by the very out of touch statement by Catherine Ashton, foreign policy chief of the European Union, who this week condemned the use of force and live ammunition against peaceful protesters in the city of Taiz, adding that "the continued repression by the Yemeni regime and grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law cannot be accepted".
What she said was true, but as Yemen slips into what might be the start of a massive tribal clash, it is not the firing of live rounds that is the average Yemeni's concern. They are more concerned about getting out of the way of substantial government and tribal forces which can muster thousands of armed men, heavy artillery and other weaponry. Thousands of civilians have fled Sana'a this week, to avoid getting caught in the middle of a major war.

The political initiative was seized this week by Hamid Al Ahmar, when he rebelled against Saleh. A businessman and politician, Al Ahmar holds an important position in the major Hashid confederation. His elder brother Sadiq Al Ahmar is the paramount chief of the Hashid confederation, and they are the sons of the late Shaikh Abdullah Al Ahmar, who was a major figure in Yemeni politics till his death in 2007, backed by substantial Saudi influence. A third brother Hussain commanded the Saudi-backed Hashid militia in the recent fighting in Sa'ada.
Saudi concern

Hamid Al Ahmar's challenge will be viewed favourably by Saudi Arabia, which has had a close relationship with his family for decades. The Saudi leadership is the most concerned of all the GCC states that Yemen does not slip into chaos, and it will naturally back an alternative to Saleh based on northern leaders. And if Al Ahmar is dismissed as being just a businessman rather than a politician, his relative, General Ali Mohsin Al Ahmar is an effective military commander who has already rebelled against Saleh.
All this leaves Yemen's pro-democracy activists stranded. As Ginny Hill and Gerd Nonneman reported in a Chatham House paper on Yemen this week, the activists reject the idea of supporting a leadership bid from another member of the power elite.

They have promised to hold out for a peaceful transfer to a civilian authority. The activists are slowly developing their own management structure and deciding on mechanisms to nominate their leaders, but this was not sufficiently advanced to enable them to send observers to the GCC transition talks.
But others who are not yet part of the action are the leaders from the south. When Yemen united in 1990, the president of South Yemen, Ali Salim Al Beidh, became vice-president of the united country. He despaired that Saleh would not listen to his concerns, and resigned to lead a breakaway movement when he declared the Democratic Republic of Yemen, which only lasted in the south from May to June 1994. Al Beidh is the leader of Al Harak, a party dedicated to a southern breakaway.

The GCC sees Yemen as too important and too close to be allowed to fail. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Saudis ran massive grant programmes which they allowed to wither away after the border settlement in 2000. Now they are leading GCC efforts to find a political solution. They have reopened their links with northern political leaders like Al Ahmar to try and find a way forward.
But in the end, any long-term solution in Yemen will also need to take into account southern ambitions, as well as the new demands of the young people on the streets, who have time and demographics on their side, even if they have failed to find a leader to articulate their demands and take part in the talks this time round.

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