By Dr. Murad Alazzany, A professor in Sana’a University
Earlier this month, Yemenis with their different political trends were optimistic that their country’s political leadership and opposition had reached “common ground” by which they would end weeks of unrest and protest all over the country.
That common ground was reached through a group of influential religious clerics and tribal leaders who went in between the political rivals in an endeavor to resolve the political crisis.
Through them, the opposition coalition parties presented a proposal of five points to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as a road map to get out of the crisis.
Most significant among them is a point calling for the president to agree on handing over power peacefully by the end of this year.
But the optimism of Yemenis over that common ground dissipated when the president defiantly rejected the opposition proposal calling its five-point plan vague and a violation for the constitution.
He renewed his pledges to leave power only when his term ends by 2013. That increases Yemeni worries and to realize that the crisis that has been storming their country for weeks will be prolonged, and has caused them to lose their faith that any viable solution may be peering over the horizon.
However, the president’s rejection of the opposition proposal did not only discourage Yemenis, but marked a new turn in the Yemeni political scenario.
It has intensified a battle between the political rivals in the country. Since then, Yemeni streets have turned into competing rallying points between them.
Each side exerts its effort to rally more supporters to show itself more powerful on the ground.
The competitions between the opposition and the ruling party reached their peak on Fridays.
That is when thousands of people, both supporters of the president and protesters, poured into the streets across the country on Fridays in what has become a weekly stand-off event to display muscle on the streets.
Prayers are not performed in mosques as usual but on the streets and main squares in cities.
However, it seems that the battle between the Yemeni political rivals will not continue inclusively in terms of such power plays through demonstrations.
The battle may turn into clashes on the streets between them, particularly once the ruling party starts to feel that the landscape of the opposition supporters is increasingly widening on its account.
As of now, it is attracting more supporters and has reached places which were people had not previously been sympathetic.
Though it is still difficult to predict how the situation in the country will evolve, one can tell the coming weeks may witness bloody skirmishes between the political adversaries.
The seeds of these clashes have began on a wide range all over the country since last Saturday. In Sana’a, the clashes escalated with security forces firing live and ammunition tear gas in a pre-dawn raid on a central square near the university.
Four people were reported killed by snipers perched on the rooftop of a nearby building and hundreds were left wounded.
What is odd is realizing that both sides of the political equation in Yemen are betting on time – the opposition to gain more supporters and the regime to assuage the protests.
However, by observing closely the political situation in Yemen, one can tell time is on the side of the opposition rather than on the regime.
Day by day, the opposition makes more gains on the ground; it attracts more people and rallies more consensus around its project of change. The opposition that has been known to be fractious appears to be unified around a single goal: ousting President Saleh.
Unlike the opposition, the regime is under steadily growing pressure. Day by day, the regime becomes more isolated and burdened with new challenges and problems.
More cracks are developing, as several members of its party keep resigning and declaring their solidarity with the opposition. In the midst of these events, the series of concessions the president made neither could quell the protesting youths nor mollify the opposition.
His promise to create sixty thousand job opportunities for the youth this year and orders to set a dialogue with them led nowhere.
His pledges not to run for president when his terms ends in 2013 and not to pass power to his son were met with skepticism, and his offer of a unity government to the opposition was rejected promptly.
His last gambit of proposing a new constitution that would be drafted by the end of year to establish the separation of legislative and executive powers failed too.
The president is desperate to buy the support of the Yemeni street in any way and at any price.
He even tried the tactic of blaming shadowy foreign powers, represented in cells run from Washington and Tel Aviv, for the problems afflicting his country. But that gamble appeared implausible and comical for the majority of viewers.
In fact, the widespread protest has left Saleh and his regime under enormous pressure. It shocked the inner circle and made it look feeble at handling the situation.
However, the president’s rejection of the early exit proposal suggests that he still believes he can ride out the revolt. But we do not know what exactly he is betting on.
If it is on the security forces, the ongoing clashes prove that the more abuse of power the more intense grows the protest.
Saleh may be betting on the force of the army as a potential buttress to support his rule as a president till his term ends by 2013.
But the army the president has built through thirty years of his rule appears fragile and unable to burden the responsibility of securing the country and preventing it from descending into havoc.
It failed six times to put down a small rebel force by Al-Houthis in the north of the country, let alone a widely-spread and publicly-supported protest.
The culture of corruption has hollowed its institutions and weakened its loyalties. Removing senior generals from top positions and replacing them with the president’s family members affected the loyalty of its members.
That makes the likelihood that the army will disband in the first encounter with clashes possible. That increased by the Fatwa which was issued by a group of religious clerics which forbade soldiers from obeying the orders to kill or harm peaceful protestors.
However, the card the president is potentially betting on is the division of Yemeni people and a rending of the social and political fabric of the country.
This division appears prominent in Yemen’s streets, and many places are crowded with Saleh supporters as numerous as his opponents.
The streets echo with chants demanding the ouster of the president as much as they support his concessions. It reveals the extent to which Yemeni loyalties are divided and the extent to which their views diverge.
It shows that Yemenis do not know what exactly they want and are divided on how to achieve it.
Perhaps all of them want to see fundamental political and economic reforms, but they disagree whether that could happen within the framework of Saleh’s government or not.
Even the tribal confederations, which are often used by both the president and the opposition to decide political power in the country, appears more vulnerable to this division.
As there are many tents which were pitched by tribal men in rallying points supporting Saleh, there are at least as many constructed by tribal men in those areas which support the opposition.
Thousands of these tribal men attended a rally in Amran province two weeks ago convened by Hussein al-Ahmar, a tribal chief widely known as a strong opponent of Saleh.
Surprisingly, thousands of them attended another rally in the same province a week ago called by Kahlan Abu Shawareb, another tribal chief who is widely known as a strong supporter of Saleh.
The possibility that the two rallies are attended by the same tribal men of the city stands strong. That is due to the fact that the politics of the tribes is quite complicated.
They are well-known at excelling at the business of dividing political roles among themselves. Chiefs of the same tribe could have different political allegiances, some join the ruling party while others join the opposition.
However, it is hard to tell that they are in anybody’s pocket. Historically, Yemeni tribes show their readiness to throw their weight behind any leader who seems most likely to lavish them with financial rewards and political privileges.
It must be noted that the role of tribal allegiances in deciding the political power in Yemen is exaggerated by the opposition and media, too. 80% of Yemeni population belongs to non-tribal areas which are civilized and where tribal conventions are not dominant.
These divisions have even infiltrated, though invisibly, the opposition camp. The opposition has become an umbrella for various groups that embrace political views it cannot accommodate.
Its camp has been joined by the secessionists in the south and the Houthi rebels in the North. Members of the secessionist movement have replaced their slogans that often chant their demand for separation by those demand ousting the president.
Similarly, the Houthi rebels have stopped their slogans accusing the regime of betrayal for its alliance with the US by those chanting the fall of the regime.
That may have added a momentum to the protest of the opposition coalition parties and to make its movement appear temporally and outwardly inclusive.
These groups have never declared their formal joining of the opposition coalition. That their chants demand the ouster of Saleh does not mean they have abandoned their previous agendas, but rather that they have frozen them.
Once they dispose their in common enemy with the opposition, they will fight till the last breath to fulfill their agenda.
The division of the people and the divergence of agendas put the coalition political parties in a difficult situation.
In spite of joining the protest and using rhetoric that flares up their support of the youth, they appear unwilling to take their protest to a revolutionarily level.
They only intend to increase pressure on Saleh to force him to accept their early exit proposal.
However, the president’s defiant rejection of that proposal put the opposition in a real dilemma; they realize that it is not easy to topple a president who has endured wars and many rebellions like Saleh by protest and bloodshed.
At the same time, they cannot withdraw their proposal due to the bloodshed and loss of souls among the youth.
They are aware that if they accelerate their protest against Saleh, the country will descend into havoc and turmoil.
The opposition became convinced that without compromising a peaceful transition of power with Saleh, none will be able to rule a united Yemen after him.
The political division of Yemenis and the diversity of their views make the revolution hard to accomplish, but their country is close to a conflict.
It proves that Yemen is not like Tunisia or Egypt. A myth gains its resonance in the rhetorical discourse of the regime to frighten the people of a revolution.
But that myth stands still a reality but it is the regime to blame for making Yemen not like Tunisia or Egypt. Through 33-years of the president’s reign, he did little to address the country’s desperate needs of education and development.
Its policy and tactics of ruing the country contributed to empowering tribal Shiekhs, military generals and regional dignitaries on the account weakening country civil institutions.
That paralyzed government ministries from playing any potential role to systematize the power hierarchy in the society. In the long run, the central government became weak in facing any challenge threatening the country.
In turn, as power is dispersed among many players, the loyalty of people is as well. This explains well why a vacuum of power ensuing from Saleh’s removal will make the country descend into havoc.
The million dollar question that Yemenis, supporters and opponents, are asking now is what would happen to Yemen when Saleh leaves.
The opposition deems any attempt to answer this question as delaying the fall of the regime.
But the opposition has to review its stand for a moment and find, based on real and given fact, a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis. At the end, it should not forget that it is only the revolutionary fervor that triggers Yemenis’ yearn for change, otherwise the country is not ready to afford an abrupt revolutionary change, only a gradual one.
Murad Alazzany is a professor in the department of English Studies at Sana’a University, Yemen. His main research areas are ‘the representation of Islam and Muslims in the Western media’ and ‘the political discourse of Islamic movements in the media’.