Monday, August 8, 2011

When Will Yemen’s Night Really End?

By Gabriele vom Bruck

Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh might be forgiven for refusing, on 22 May, to sign a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement obliging him to rescind power within a month. The date marked the twenty-first anniversary of the unification of his Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south — the highlight of his political career. However, this was the third time he failed to confront the inevitable, so failing to ease the dangerous impasse in the country he has ruled for over three decades. Yemen, as Amnesty International warns, is “on a knife-edge”.

Thus far, the country has been spared another devastating war, one potentially bloodier than those fought since unification in 1990. In the capital Sana, in spite of daily harassment, tear gas, beatings and killings by security forces, the protests have for the main part remained peaceful, even after the killing of over fifty protesters on 18 March. In the southern city of Taiz, where security forces destroyed protesters’ tents, killing dozens of them on 30 May, “Martyrs’ Square” — recently renamed “Freedom Square” — has again become testimony to the city’s martyrs. There are daily clashes in the southern provinces (in the former PDRY); five provinces in various parts of the country are no longer under government control. Since the attack on Saleh’s palace mosque on 3 June which compelled him to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, there has been a power sharing of sorts. Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi has become acting head of state, but Saleh’s eldest son Ahmad has moved into the palace and the government insists that Saleh will return and rule until the end of his term in office in 2013. Amid continuing deadly clashes in several areas and a looming humanitarian crisis, a political transition process is urgently needed.

The current crisis follows the trajectory of Saleh’s rule: the president is not known for seeking peaceful solutions to political crises. He has relied on “divide and rule” tactics to neutralise threats to his authority, and on a patronage system that permeates all sectors of government and society. The political elite exercises authority through extra-constitutional means and controls a substantial part of the business sector. The provision of public services to provinces has often been made dependent on political loyalty — a policy which has served to perpetuate historical grievances and antagonism. Even where obvious solutions were available to some of the country’s more entrenched problems, the political will was lacking. Yet western nations offered support to Saleh’s regime even as he lost legitimacy among his people. In the past months the regime, as well as western diplomacy, has been challenged in the streets of Yemen’s towns and cities. US foreign secretary Hillary Clinton’s statement on 2 June 2011 that “if it wasn’t obvious before it certainly should be now that [Saleh’s] presence remains a source of great conflict” reads like an embarrassing admission of past misjudgement. In 2010, the so-called “Friends of Yemen” was established, a group made up of 20 countries determined to improve Yemen’s capacity to maintain security and increase and coordinate foreign assistance. The tragic irony of the project was that it sought to stabilise a country that had been systematically destabilised by its leader.

Square of dignity

Nowadays, Yemen’s capital is divided by checkpoints manned by rival factions of the army, some of them allied with militias loyal to tribal leaders. Fearful residents argue that this stand-off is reminiscent of events in 1994 which marked the end of a promising period of liberalisation which had begun in 1990. The armies of the former YAR and the PDRY confronted and eventually fought each other, leaving thousands dead. Yemen’s democratic experiment, strained by economic downturn and the two former leaders’ ambition to outsmart each other, was doomed to failure.

Saleh, emboldened by his victory over the south, now exercised power over a territory which was last ruled over as a united polity in the 17th century. Instead of investing in institution building and national unity, he created and exploited divisions among potential rivals. The following decades were marked by the accumulation of power within a narrowly defined circle of trusted men (many from the Hashid tribal confederation), repression of civil liberties, and war.

Regionally focused demonstrations in northern and southern Yemen since 2003 have escalated into nation-wide anti-regime protests modelled on those in Tunisia and Egypt, and the army’s loyalties have been divided. Troops commanded by Yemen’s top general, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the most high profile government official to have defected after the March 18 massacre, now protect street protestors. Seasoned Yemeni political analysts have long predicted that the fall of Saleh’s regime would be caused by internal rivalries. Rumours persist that the recent assassination attempt on Saleh’s life was an insider job. Indeed, events over the past years go some way to explain the current crisis — increasing intra-elite rivalry, the thorny issue of “dynastic” succession, the regime’s ambivalent accommodation with jihadis of various kinds, and western foreign policy that prioritised its own interests even in the face of mounting opposition to Saleh’s regime.

However, the main drivers of regime change seem to be those who have taken to the streets since January, among them many young people. The unemployment rate among the young exceeds 50%. Disillusioned with the opposition parties which make up the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an alliance of six parties, they demand fundamental political reform. Since the protests began, they have asked for national dignity, transparency in governance, civic freedoms and better economic opportunity.

Women, some of whom had already been demonstrating in recent years in front of the Political Security Office asking for the release of their relatives, have been among the most outspoken. Tawakkul Karman, head of the NGO Women Journalists without Chains, maintains that “we will make the revolution, or we will die trying”.

Karman and other activists boldly invited the southern opposition, Zaydi rebel forces (Huthis), trade unions, the army, civil society organisations and tribal leaders to join the demonstrations. Saleh, in an apparent effort to discredit the protestors and remove women from the republican guard’s firing line (women’s deaths would create even more outcry among the population), argued that ikhtilat (the mixing of men and women protestors) was un-Islamic. His speech was interpreted as an encouragement to radical elements to cause divisions — and some women who were marching side by side with the men were beaten by guards associated with Islah, a moderate Islamist party composed of Muslim Brothers and Salafis. The women complained that Saleh had offended them, and five thousand of them then demonstrated in Sana on 16 April.

In view of the moral codes in northern Yemen prohibiting communication among unrelated men and women except in places such as universities, cross-gender political debates in the square have been as important as those among the young who have spent weeks in tent cities modelled on those which first appeared in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. At one entrance a large poster welcomes people “to the first kilometre of dignity”; another reads “Welcome to the land of liberty”. Karman herself claims that the “Yemeni revolution has succeeded in bringing about the unity the regime has failed to achieve.”

The Saudis consider Yemen their own backyard, and whether or not they can maintain its patronage network will depend on who is in charge in Sana. By linking patronage to demands for promoting their brand of Islam and for fighting the Huthis in the northern parts of the country, the Saudis have raised the spectre of sectarian violence in an already volatile area which since 2010 has made enormous efforts towards self-pacification. As far as the current power struggle in Yemen is concerned, they are favourably disposed towards Gen. Ali Muhsin and Hamid al-Ahmar. They seem not to categorise Islah like other Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parties in Egypt and Gaza. Presumably the Saudis, who have made generous financial contributions to Islah, assume that it will remain loyal to them. But in the long run, the idea of a government headed by Islamists who might assert their independence, rivalry or even opposition to the kingdom may not seem such a palatable option. Surely Saudi Arabia would, above all, favour the establishment of a Sunni monarchy at its southern border. Yet in Yemen, there is little historical precedent for it.

Yemen is at the most critical junction since the overthrow of the imamate in the north and British rule in the south. Tawakkul Karman has recently spoken of its “unfinished revolution”. Yemeni citizens are anxiously asking where and when it will end, and what price they will have to pay for it to succeed. Shortly after the explosion at Saleh’s compound, one of his political advisors ended a long discussion about Yemen’s future trajectories with a wry comment: “I feel sorry for the one who will succeed him. There’s nothing left for him in the country.” Even if the transfer of power comes about peacefully, the conflux of political and economic challenges might yet overwhelm Saleh’s successor.

This commentary was published in The Yemen Times on 08/08/2011

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