Conflict Risk Alert: Yemen
23 Mar 2011
The political tide in Yemen has turned decisively against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. His choices are limited: he can fight his own military or negotiate a rapid and dignified transfer of power. By choosing the latter path now, he has a chance of ensuring an honourable departure and, most importantly, of sparing his country a brutal and bloody civil war.
The tipping point occurred on 18 March when gunmen on rooftops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in Sanaa, killing more than 50 and wounding hundreds. While details remain vague and the regime denies orchestrating the shootings, the political damage was done, and it was immense. Images of dozens of young men shot in the head and chest galvanised anti-regime sentiment and intensified anger. The following day, support for the regime began to haemorrhage as a wave of prominent diplomats, party members and government leaders resigned.
The head of the Hashid tribal confederation, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, previously silent on the matter of the president's fate, announced his support for the protest movement and its demands. Most importantly, on 22 March, the president's relative, commander of the northwest military district and head of the first armoured division, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, announced that he would protect and support protesters. Widely considered the second-most powerful man in Yemen, Ali Mohsen's decision precipitated dozens of military defections, which effectively shifted the military balance of power against the president. At this point, the regular military is largely supportive of the protest movement, while the Republican Guards, commanded by the president's son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, and the intelligence apparatus, run by the president's nephews, remain loyal to him.
Prior to the events of 18 March, there was a chance for Saleh to negotiate and even lead a process of reform and peaceful transition of power. That opportunity is gone. A reshuffling of elite alliances, particularly inside the Hashid tribal confederation, leaves him few options. As rival military units face off in the streets of Sanaa, a swift transfer of power to a civilian, transitional government is required to avoid a confrontation and the possibility of widespread violence.
Saleh's peaceful departure would address an important issue, but equally significant is what comes next. At this point, there is a serious risk that protester demands for a more accountable, democratic and institutionalised government will be taken over and distorted by powerful tribal and religious interests. While youth and civil society activists initiated the protest movement, they since have been joined by established political parties, tribal elites and powerful religious scholars who seized the opportunity at least in part to promote their own political interests.
Ironically, the most powerful current backers of the protest movement -- Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar's brothers and salafi leaders such as Sheikh Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani -- are long-time regime insiders and symbols of the status quo. Over time, Ali Mohsen and the older generation in the president's tribe, the Sanhan, as well as the al-Ahmar brothers, have felt increasingly marginalized by the concentration of power around the president's son and nephews. Today, this rivalry within the Hashid tribal confederation is playing out in the context of the protest movement.
Protesters are aware of this tug-of-war and, while they welcome any support in toppling Saleh, are wary of the role these elites could play in the future. If immediate steps are not taken to act upon and institutionalise protester demands, the country risks replacing the current regime with one bearing striking similarities, dominated by tribal elites from Hashid and powerful Islamists.
This outcome, at odds with the demands at the core of the uprising, is not a recipe for stability or for a transition to more democratic governance. Moreover, it almost certainly would exacerbate festering tensions in the country's troubled regions, particularly in Saada and south Yemen. Indeed, Ali Mohsen, the al-Ahmar brothers and Zindani are well known for their hardline approach in the conflict with the northern Huthis and for their scepticism toward genuine local rule or any form of southern federalism.
In short, the tide has turned against Saleh albeit not necessarily in favour either of a peaceful transfer of power or in favour of those pressing for meaningful change. Several steps are essential to forestall further loss of life and achieve a successful political transition:
President Saleh should immediately accept a swift and peaceful transfer of power to a civilian caretaker government;
Opposition leaders and supporters of the protest movement should facilitate a quick and honourable exit for Saleh, along with his son and nephews, by continuing negotiations over a quick and orderly transition that includes a specific timeline and mechanism for transferring authority.
To ensure a meaningful transition, the caretaker government should:
- Include youth and civil society members, representatives from the various political blocs, as well as representatives of Yemen's various regions, including from Saada, "middle Yemen", and the territories of former south Yemen.
- Organise a constitutional convention with the goal of establishing a parliamentary system, clear checks and balances between branches of government, civilian oversight and control of the military, and institutional provisions that protect political freedoms and regional representation.
4. The international community should:
- Condemn violence from all sides, whether forces loyal to president Saleh or to Ali Mohsen, or from protesters;
- Suspend military and security assistance to the regime should it continue to resort to violence against peaceful protesters;
- Continue to mediate between youth and civil society protest leaders, opposition leaders and former regime stalwarts to achieve a peaceful compromise with Saleh.