Yemen after Saleh?

June 7, 2011

Alan Maass looks at what the possible end of Ali Abdullah Selah's 33-year reign will mean for the struggle for democracy and justice in Yemen.

CROWDS OF Yemenis gathered in the capital of Sanaa and other cities this weekend to celebrate the news that President Ali Abdullah Saleh had left the country to undergo medical treatment after being injured in a rebel military attack on the presidential palace.

The demonstrators believe this is the end of Saleh's 33 years in power, and many analysts agree that the dictator will never return to Yemen. But government officials insist Saleh will be back "in a few days."

Even if Saleh is gone for good, however, the popular rebellion in Yemen--inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt--will not have achieved its goals. In the past several weeks, the democracy movement has been pushed to the side by a military conflict between rival factions of the country's elite, all of which are--whatever their rhetoric to the contrary--hostile to calls for fundamental political change and measures to overcome the desperate impoverishment so many Yemenis endure.

Another U.S.-backed dictator in the Arab world may have finally fallen--but the struggle to change Yemen's status quo of poverty, violence and political repression will depend on how the democracy movement responds to what comes next.

Ali Abdullah Saleh
Ali Abdullah Saleh (Helene C. Stikkel)

Of course, Saleh's possible departure is still cause for celebration. On Saturday night, the central square of Sanaa--located outside Sanaa University and rechristened "Change Square" by the democracy movement--rang with the singing and dancing of tens of thousands of people.

The signs of demonstrators testified to the exuberant mood: "Yemen is more beautiful without you," and "Name: A free Yemeni. Date of Birth: June 4, 2011. Place of birth: Change Square."

But among leading figures in the democracy movement, the excitement was tempered. "This is not the end, by any stretch of the imagination," Jamal Nasser, spokesperson for the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change, told the Christian Science Monitor. "I just don't feel like celebrations are appropriate at this point.

SALEH WAS injured on June 3 when fighters likely aligned with the Hashid tribal federation, the largest tribal group in the country, fired mortars into Saleh's compound, killing and injuring dozens of people. The next day, Saleh was transported to Saudi Arabia along with dozens of others.

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The assault was part of an escalating battle between, on the one hand, forces loyal to Saleh, and on the other, the Hashid tribal fighters, as well as military units that have defected from the regime. The capital of Sanaa has been gripped by combat for the last two weeks since Saleh's regime began a crackdown that included an attack on the Sanaa residence of Hashid leader Sadiq al-Ahmar.

Sadiq al-Ahmar and his brother Hamid al-Ahmar, a billionaire and the head of the broad Islamist party Islah, lead one of the most powerful families in Yemen. Their father was speaker of the country's Assembly of Representatives for a decade and a half until his death in 2007 and a close collaborator with Saleh.

Thus, while the al-Ahmar brothers supported the democracy movement's calls for Saleh to step down, their interests are very different from the young protesters who faced repression in Sanaa and other cities.

Activists are dubious about the Hashid tribal fighters being treated as allies of the youth rebellion. As journalist and activist Shatha al-Arazi told the Monitor, "Our revolution was hijacked by the tribes. How can we establish a civil state if tribes still wield so much power? They forced Saleh out with weapons, and we failed to force him out with peace."

The Western media have likewise portrayed military officers who broke with Saleh as part of the democracy movement, but regime defectors like Gen. Ali-Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the al-Ahmar brothers), a ruthless henchmen for Saleh in carrying out decades of repression, are no more to be trusted than the al-Ahmars.

Meanwhile, though Saleh may be gone for good to Saudi Arabia, along with some members of his family and inner circle, the regime's elite security forces, led by Saleh's son, nephews and half-brothers, remain intact.

These forces are far from powerless. For example, Taiz, Yemen's second-largest city, is enduring a savage crackdown carried out at the end of May by government forces. Soldiers stormed a democracy encampment in the city's central square--according to reports, several elderly and handicapped people were killed or severely injured when the tent they had taken shelter in was set on fire.

Government forces have violently dispersed all attempts to return to the square and are clashing with tribal fighters from the area around Taiz who mobilized to defend protesters. "We live in a state of terror, we are forced into secret underground activism now, and they are arresting people from their own homes," an activist from Taiz told the Yemen Times.

MEANWHILE, THE U.S. government and its ally Saudi Arabia have been scrambling to come up with an arrangement that preserves their interests.

Saleh had the backing of the U.S. as an ally in the "war on terror" since the September 11 attacks, all the more enthusiastically after he embraced the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Washington's attention is especially focused on the presence of an offshoot of al-Qaeda based in southern Yemen--though experts say it consists of no more than 100 to 200 people. Nevertheless, Saleh enthusiastically embraced U.S. military operations like targeted assassinations in his own country.

However, after the protests erupted in Sanaa as part of the wave of rebellions across the Arab world, the U.S. and the Saudis came to the conclusion that their ally had become a liability.

In April, the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an alliance of six U.S.-backed dictatorships in the Gulf region, formalized diplomatic efforts to ease out Saleh with a deal that would secure the dictator's resignation, but give him and his family immunity from prosecution.

Leaders of the democracy movement rejected the plan and called for more protests to drive out Saleh without conditions. On the day that the GCC deal was officially announced, the movement called a general strike that had support across the country, including Southern port cities like Aden that have been the center of a secessionist struggle.

Saleh, too, eventually rejected the GCC deal, but since his injury in the June 3 attack, the Saudi regime appears to be putting the arrangement into action. Since Saleh's evacuation to Riyadh, power is in the hands of Saleh's vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, as the GCC had proposed.

Leaders of Yemen's official opposition parties--including the billionaire Hamid al-Ahmar of Islah--endorsed the GCC deal back in April, in contrast to the democracy movement. Now, they have agreed to back a transfer of power to Hadi, with elections to come at some point in the future.

As has happened in other Arab revolutions, elements of the security apparatus connected to Saleh's inner circle could try to reassert their authority by unleashing violence--by forces in uniform and out. But no one should rule out the possibility that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will broker a deal that keeps the old order essentially intact, minus Saleh--and win approval for it from the rival ruling-class factions whose soldiers and fighters are now shooting at each other.

This would accomplish nothing at all for the masses of Yemenis who have increasingly put their hopes in the youth-led struggle for democracy. Support for the uprising expanded from the first protests at Sanaa University to a movement that has spread around the country, with literally millions of people participating in demonstrations.

The struggle has also expanded in the scope of its demands. A tiny elite--made up of Saleh's inner circle, but also his bitterest ruling-class rivals--presides over the poorest country in the Arab world, where per capita income is $2.90 a day and the malnutrition rate is the third-highest in the world. Hussein Mohammed al-Harazi, a resident of Sanaa's old city, summed up the mood for a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor: "Saleh is gone, thank God. But I still can't find water or fuel."

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