Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Is The Impasse In Yemen Leading To “Sudanization”?

By George Semaan
It does not seem that the balance of power in Yemen has tipped in favor of any particular side. While it is indeed tilting in favor of the regime in the military institution, it is angling in favor of its opponents in the “tribal” institution, and this may explain why the horizon for any peaceful solution remains blocked, and why the implementation of the Gulf initiative has stalled. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was clear when he set out the conditions for his exit. He linked it – in his last statements to the Washington Post – to the departure of his opponents who, only yesterday, were the backbone of the regime. While the popular uprising’s main demand is to see the regime depart, this change in the opinion of its head should include all the faces who were responsible for running the country throughout the last 33 years, i.e. General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the first armored division, among others. This clearly means that the conflict among the leading figures in the regime has become the prevalent characteristic of political developments in Yemen.
The battles between General Al-Ahmar’s forces and the fighters of Sadek al-Ahmar on the one hand, and the Presidential Guard on the other in May and June – which were renewed in more than one location and ended with the attempted assassination against the president in the presidential compound four months ago – prove that change in the country might not be proceeding in the direction hoped for by the youths protesting in the squares. Nor is this reassuring to all those who have since joined them, including Southern and Northern factions, under the umbrella of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).
In light of the current balance of power in Sana’a, it seems that the situation has reached a dead end and that the conflict will not end any time soon. However, the card of those opposing the authorities might appear to be the winning one on the long run, since it is the president’s team that is required to leave on the regional and international levels, and since its rivals – i.e. yesterday’s partners – have stood alongside the youths since the beginning and have transferred their partnership to the JMP, which is the most widely represented side throughout the country. However, this status quo is not encouraging the participants in the uprising who have started to feel, as time is passing by, that they are being ever more marginalized in this bipolar power struggle.
There is no doubt that the Houthis in Saada – who engaged in six rounds of war against the regime – have not yet forgotten they were confronting both the sides now involved in the current struggle over power. There is consequently no doubt that today, they feel they have grown stronger as their enemy has become divided, and will not reunite in light of the blood that was spilled in Sadek al-Ahmar’s home and the presidential compound. Hence, they now have conditions in any new authority, i.e. “a share” in the next regime, and they are more capable than they were in the pre-uprising “rounds” to impose these conditions. Indeed, the weaker the central authority is, the stronger the peripheries grow.
But what is more dangerous in terms of this stalemate is the feeling prevailing among the Southerners regarding the fact that the current conflict is distancing them from decision-making positions. The uprising gave the impression to the hardline team that the benefits of change in light of unity would alter the previous situation, and eliminate marginalization, exclusion, tyranny and discrimination. Some in the South – who until the eve of the uprising were calling loudly for the independence of the marginalized South - will benefit from the current marginalization to enhance their positions and their calls for leaving a united Yemen. Hence, if a team in the regime is drawing inspiration from what is happening in Syria and Libya, some in the South are drawing inspiration from the Sudanese experience which resulted in two Sudans. Now, in light of the “people’s struggle” in Sana’a, they are more capable of acting in this direction, and of confronting the powers that deterred their efforts during the secession war in 1994, and of re-convincing some powers which backed them up at the time about the purpose and benefits of “Sudanization.”
But what is more dangerous than the Southerners’ and Northerners’ feeling of exclusion vis-à-vis what is happening in Sana’a, is their feeling that neither the regional powers – especially the GCC states – nor the international powers – especially the United States – have so far succeeded in paving the way for the desired change. Some among them even believe that all these powers have failed to put enough pressure to convince President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, for considerations related to each side. They know that Washington was and still is supporting the Gulf initiative that regulates a peaceful and smooth transition of power, due to fears of seeing change affecting the position of Sana’a in the “war on terror” and seeing the arrival of extremists to power.
A long time went by before Washington hastened President Saleh’s departure, as it was not convinced by the opposition’s accusation of the regime of standing behind the exaggeration of the extremists’ positions and the threat they pose on Gulf and Western interests. And while President Saleh’s team believed it can exploit the death of Anwar al-Awlaki to enhance its position, Washington quickly tried to foreclose this, this time around. It thus recognized that “cooperation with the Yemeni government was important in the killing of Al-Awlaki,” warning however that this “is separate from the belief that Saleh should immediately start the transition towards democracy in accordance with the Gulf initiative.” So, will Washington be sincere in this, bearing in mind it has not adopted any steps hinting to the exertion of pressures on President Saleh to hasten his departure?
The card of the Islamic extremists is no longer useful to the regime, the way it used to be in the past. It is no longer useful for it to warn against some components of the opposition, led by the Yemeni Congregation for Reform – Al-Islah - which includes some individuals wanted on ‘terrorist lists’. Indeed, the people participating in the uprising know that alongside the Islamists, the Congregation includes many businessmen, tribal dignitaries and moderate figures, and that the late Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar was the one mainly deciding the direction of Al-Islah. He used to set the tone of the Islamists in the Islah Party, and distance them from the forefront of the events when necessary. And just like the president manipulated opposition forces to reaffirm his strength in the face of Al-Ahmar tribe, the latter used the card of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic forces gathered under the banner of the Congregation. Still, the tribal factor remains the strongest in defining the directions of the Congregation, whose traditional members know how difficult it would be to monopolize power without a clear regional backup from the neighbors and the West for a country living under the poverty line and a country whose unity is threatened by the aspirations of hardliners here and there, in the North and the South.
While foreign pressures have so far failed to push the situation in Yemen towards change and while the opposition squares are consolidating the existing balance of powers on the ground, the question is: Will the youth on Change Square and the moderate powers refusing to join this or that camp, or to hear the voices calling for secession rising once again, ultimately give up? The shortest way out of the tunnel is a new path, i.e. the emergence of a third power that would lead the uprising away from the struggle between those aspiring to inherit the authority instead of changing the regime. Any reluctance to form such a power will exacerbate despair among the youth, but more dangerously will strengthen those who do not see any interest in the unity of the country.
Was this not said and promoted long before the birth of the South Sudan state? It is not logical for the conflict between the Presidential Guard and the First Division to dominate the entire political scene or for Yemen to remain trapped between the two lines of this bipolar confrontation. Even if one side were to win over the other in light of this equation, the issue of change will remain pending. So, will the squares produce a third party capable of changing the equation prevailing domestically and abroad?
-This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 03/09/2011
-George Semaan is the former editor-in-chief of al-Hayat

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