Political Analysis

Clashes in Yemen, not a Point of no Return


A man in his fourth floor building watching al-Hasabah bombs

By Dr. Murad Alazzany, A professor in Sana’a University

Earlier last week, Yemenis with their different political trends were optimistic that the plan created out by the Gulf Cooperation Council would end the crisis of the last three months. The brokered plan represented a deal whereby Saleh had to transfer power to his vice president and to resign within 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution for himself, his family members and hundreds of his regime members.

But the optimism of Yemenis waned as the president balked at signing the deal at the last minute for trivial reasons. He demanded the presence of the opposition and to re-sign the deal in a ceremony at the presidential palace. That was the third time he had promised to sign the deal only to change his mind.

Many analysts and political viewers were already skeptical that Saleh was going to sign that deal. All one had to do was listen to the speeches he used to flare up his supporters every Friday. The discourse of his speeches vacillated between emphasizing on the legitimacy of his rule and welcoming the gulf brokered deal. In his last speech in Al-Sabaeen square, he appeared as someone campaigning for re-election rather than a president ready to cede power. He even criticized the GCC deal before he was about to sign it describing it as a conspiracy and an endeavored coup by the opposition. Therefore, it was no surprise that the character of the president’s actions and speeches successfully revealed that Saleh had no intention of fulfilling his promises to put his signature onto the deal. He then went on and followed up his rejection to sign the deal with a defiant threat to provoke a civil war- which soon materialized in the bloody confrontations with some of his rivals.

However, his evasion in signing the deal this time was bizarre as it was Saleh himself who  asked Mr. Ziani to come to Yemen after affirming his willingness to put his signature. This action has created a stalemate by which may evolve into violent nationwide confrontations. Currently, Saleh’s unwillingness to sign has unexpectedly been followed by violent clashes between pro-Saleh troops and fighters loyal to Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of Hashid tribe who and his brothers whom sided with the growing opposition movement that has demanded an end to his 32-year-long rule. More than one hundred  people have been killed and the toll of death is still on the roll as exchanges of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades are still heard in numerous locations. The ceasefire that was agreed upon which stipulated that government ministry buildings seized by tribal militias during the clashes be evacuated succeeded to briefly contain the unfolding situation. But that truce was only a little respite as confrontations erupted again to expand into the outskirt of the capital and other provinces.

Apparently, Saleh is  not willing to cede power. He has realized that negotiations with the opposition and the protesting youth were not in his favor. In fact, his earlier involvement in negotiation contribute only in putrefying his legitimacy as a president and further in portraying him as a cunning leader – if not a liar. Thus, he has opted to harden his stance and to turn the peaceful protest into bloody confrontation in a move deemed to marginalize the peaceful protest in the country and to weaken its impetus. Such a move may turn out against him. The fiercer he becomes in confronting his opponents, the fewer options he has to calm down the situation. At the end of it all, Saleh had the decision to leave now or when the country is destroyed.

The Opposition Coalition Parties and the Youth Movement

Both the opposition coalition parties and the protesting youth have repetitively emphasized the peacefulness of their movement. They have aborted all attempts of Saleh to drag them into violent confrontations with his forces so they are not labeled as rebels. If they were drawn into confrontations, that alone would give good reason for Saleh’s troops to excessively exercise violence against them. A bloody confrontation would result in a chaotic situation harming their movement and in all likelihood, make their cause lose its resonance.

However, the ongoing bloody confrontation between Saleh troops and the tribal militias of Sadiq Al-ahmar represented a setback for both of them. The leaders of the opposition coalition parties who have been taking the lead have suddenly found themselves on the sidelines of the confrontations. Likewise, the youth movement which has inspired people for three months by calling for the ouster of Saleh and establishing a civil state is shadowed by these events too. The confrontations risk that the clangor of guns will become louder than the slogans in Arabic of ‘selmiah, selmiah. selmiah’ — the Yemeni youth chant in emphasis on the peacefulness of their movement.

Without any doubt both the opposition coalition parties and the protesting youth have the political dexterity to challenge Saleh politically but not the means to confront him militarily. But they both should not keep watching the ongoing clashes from the sidelines and to lose the lead of deciding the scenario of political change in the country. Allowing the tribal militias and their sheikhs to take the political change through violent means and bloody confrontations is an outright abortion of the change the youth and the opposition are calling for.

The aim of the protest that has been going for three consecutive months is not just to topple Saleh. The purpose largely rests on changing his regime and replacing it with a civil state in which the force of law reign and individual freedom is respected. This explicitly means a transformation from a system of tribal favoritism and patronage into a modern state. If the tribal militias keep taking the lead, any change  in Yemen will only end up enhancing tribalism instead of civil modernism. The change then will merely be move from one man autocracy to a tribal theocracy.

In order for the change in Yemen not to take pitiable trajectory, the leaders of the opposition parties have to use their alliance with Al-ahamr family and pressure them into a cease fire and evacuating the ministries and government buildings they have seized. Even if Saleh’s troops have used excessive power against them, they should not strike back with violence. This will only harm the momentum the change movement has picked up and in the long run will harm its outcome.

From another perspective, even if Saleh has lost his legitimacy as a president and has appeared willing to kill his people, it is still inevitable to that a deal will be made negotiated with him. That is due to two facts. First, it will be ridiculous to believe the militias of Al-ahmar family will win such unequal battle against Saleh’s troops that outperform them in numbers, means and machines. Second, a systematic and peaceful transfer of power is purely in the interest of Yemen. It will avert falling into a chaos ensuing from the removal of the current regime. We must not forget that lurking behind this chaos is the southern separatism movement, Al-houthis sectarianism, and al-Qaida extremism. These are the cards Saleh is playing up to frighten Yemenis and international community of the change awaiting Yemen. He has started playing al-Qaida fearing card as as he let Zanijbar, a strategic city in the province of Abyan, fall into the control of a militia of about 200 men claiming to be Al-qaida militants. This move is seen as a way for Saleh to diffuse pressure from the international community  to make a peaceful transfer power. Saleh appeared determined to drive the country into chaos and turmoil believing it will be easy for him to crush all his opponents in a chaotic situation- particularly when he has the will and does not lack the means. Whatever the case is, one wonders how possible it would be for anyone to overcome all these threats in such a chaotic situation.

The Gulf Cooperation Council Countries

The Gulf Country leaders kept pushing Saleh for almost two month to sign a deal brokered by them to end the crisis in Yemen. As the deal collapsed, it was expected they would wash their hands of the deal and to issue a statement that held Saleh was responsible of its collapse. However, it was wise of them to declare its suspension. It seems that the Gulf country leaders identified negotiation with Saleh to be similar to that with an airplane hijacker. In just one moment, a hijacker could lose hope in negotiation and get infuriated and simply blows up the plane and its passengers. Their brokered deal represents the only hope for Saleh to secure himself a graceful or dignified exit of power. If he loses that hope, nothing then will refrain him from launching a countrywide war. In his perception, that would be better than facing the same destiny of Mubarak and his sons.

However, the Gulf leaders should realize that the current crisis is far more serious than anything Yemen has faced before. The already critical situation is compounded with the ongoing clashes between Saleh troops and the tribal militias as well as the fall of a city in Abyan province into the hands of armed militias. They should not confine their diplomacy to denounce the clashes in the country, call on the sides of the dispute to have more patience and ask that Saleh relinquish power. They are more obliged than any time before to use their influence and to consider new steps to resolve the escalating crisis in the country. That does not mean to take the Yemen case to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a tool to pressure Saleh into a step down. This will only push Saleh into harden his stance and possibly escalating  the conflict confrontations with his rivals .

The ongoing events in Yemen are not yet a point of no return. Perhaps a more concerted diplomacy can succeed in containing the situation and to prevent Yemen from slipping into a civil war. The international community should – without a delay – stop such a war in an already fragile state like Yemen. The risks of war run high as violence is not a monopoly of the state, the number of weapons is three times as its population, the level of illiteracy is high and the economy is on the brink of collapse. All these together signify the relative ease to sow significant chaos in Yemen and the impossible means to stop it later. They signify also a full-scale humanitarian disaster that possibly could unfold and to pose risks to the whole area. The cost of containing that turmoil and the problems it will engender will be hundred times more than the cost of an active and heavy diplomacy.