Yemen Without Saleh

Chaos? It doesn't have to be.


June 3’s explosion in Yemen’s Nahdain Mosque — whether a mortar, rocket, or planted bomb — more seriously wounded Ali Abdullah Saleh than initial reports indicated. The BBC reports that the Yemeni president, who is now convalescing in Saudi Arabia, "suffered 40% burns and has bleeding inside his skull"; according to a Western official quoted by the New York Times, "His face was quite charred" and "he is not as well as his aides are portraying it."

The blast also blew apart Yemen’s political landscape yet again. The Americans and the Saudis are quickly trying to refashion the pieces to their liking before Saleh gets back on his feet. Among the biggest obstacles are the spoiled children of Saleh and the late Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, the two most powerful men in Yemen for the last 30 years.

Yemen is headed for elections at some point, but the key question is: Who will oversee them? Although he promised to step down in 2013, Saleh planned to remain as head of the ruling party in any future elections. Since February he has said that he and his son Ahmed would be ineligible for the presidency, but remaining head of the ruling party would guarantee him a leading role in Yemeni politics and ensure that his sons and nephews would remain in top positions in the military and security forces.

The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the coalition of political parties negotiating for the opposition, wants Saleh and his extended family that runs the security forces out of the country, and it wanted total control of the transitional government that would carry out elections. Islah, which dominates the JMP, is a broad party that includes the top leadership of the Hashid tribal confederation represented by Ahmar’s sons, various religiously oriented groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, and finally large merchants who are against socialists (though the Yemeni Socialist Party is the second most important party in the JMP).

Before the current unrest, the 10 sons of Ahmar, who died in 2007, were spread throughout the top leadership of Saleh’s government and the formal opposition. The oldest son, Sadeq al-Ahmar, is the new paramount sheikh of the Hashid, which for years formed the backbone of Saleh’s tribal support. Hussein al-Ahmar was head of Saleh’s ruling party, and another Ahmar son was the president’s key bodyguard. Himyar al-Ahmar is vice speaker of parliament. Hamid al-Ahmar is thought to be one of the richest and most ambitious men in Yemen, and he has long had his eye on the presidency. Alone among the Ahmar sons, he called for Saleh’s ouster many years ago.

When street protests began, and particularly after the March 18 killing of protesters at Sanaa University, the Ahmar sons all withdrew from Saleh’s government and joined the opposition. So did Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar sons), the powerful general who was Saleh’s key military commander for decades. In other words, the key figures in the formal political opposition are really former regime insiders.

This is why Saleh has long claimed that what is occurring in Yemen is a coup against him and his family rather than a popular revolt against an autocratic leader. At the end of May, Saleh provoked the Ahmars into a military confrontation in the Hasaba district of Sanaa; his clear aim was to establish that Yemen’s troubles were about an inter-elite struggle between two powerful families. In his thinking, the solution is a deal between the two factions or outright victory over the coup-makers, rather than a triumph of the street as in Tunisia or Egypt. (Given this weekend’s events, the coup-makers may have gotten to Saleh first, though we will likely never know who really did the deed.)

The street demonstrators who have rocked Yemeni politics since February should not be confused with the formal opposition. They are not well organized, and their demands are vague calls for equality, ridding the country of corruption, and bringing economic growth. But one demand is crystal clear: They want Saleh out, and many would like to see his regime on trial for crimes against the people. They do not want to replace Saleh’s regime with the Ahmars, whom they consider as corrupt members of the same regime. The street is calling for a transitional government of "all Yemeni forces" that rewrites the Constitution and holds elections within nine months.

The street has had a powerful impact, but it has functioned more like a check on the political process than a leading shaper of it. Nor can it be completely separated from the coup-makers: The protesters are guarded by Ali Muhsin, and Islah is very influential in the street; meanwhile, the Ahmar sons have reportedly been financing the protesters to counter Saleh’s underwriting of pro-government demonstrations. The street’s ability to direct political affairs is questionable.

So what now? The best bet for Yemen’s future is a very broad and inclusive government that is not dominated by any one faction of the smorgasbord that is Yemeni politics. Yemen needs to learn to govern by institutions and not powerful personalities.

The good news here is that the dominant political powers are relatively weakened at this point.

The Hashid leadership is not what is once was. The tribal confederation was left reeling by its conflict with the Houthi rebels in the north, and the recent conflict with Saleh inside Sanaa showed that the Ahmars could not overrun the city with tribal fighters. The Saudis also closed their special committee on Yemen, cutting off funds to their various clients in Yemen, the Ahmars being the most important. Nor is the Hashid confederation a monolith: Many of the tribesmen in the north dropped their weapons and came to Sanaa to join the street protests, while others revolted against their sheikhs and joined the Houthis. Many Hashid tribes are still backing Saleh.

The Ahmar sons’ best bet is that the Saudis back them in some form. Here they have one thing going for them: Unlike the Americans, the Saudis are not particularly keen on Yemen’s republican constitution, multiparty system, and elections. The Saudis would just as likely support a stable strongman if the Ahmars can convince the Saudis that they can deliver. It will be a hard sell, given that they did not deliver for the Saudis in the war on the Houthis. With the Americans now seemingly convinced that broad-based democracy in Yemen is the best way forward, the Saudis will at least have to wait for another time to prop up a strongman.

What of the Salehs? After all, they are still in command of the elite military and security forces, and Ahmed Saleh has reportedly locked himself in the presidential palace, refusing to let the interim president in. But President Saleh is gone, and he is probably not coming back without signing an agreement to step aside. That means the Saleh clan is in a more tenuous situation than before.

And the formal opposition? Empowered by the street demonstrations, it has successfully brought the Houthis from the north and the secessionist movement from the south into a broad anti-Saleh coalition. But both are independent powers that deeply distrust Islah, which dominates the JMP. They have a veto, a veto stronger than that of the street protesters. Islah’s maneuvering room is thus also limited by the need to include these two key political actors.

With everybody politically hemmed in and nobody dominant, Yemen finally has a chance for real political change. The potential spoilers are Hamid al-Ahmar and Ahmed Saleh, who well may resort to renewed chaos and fighting to make a grab at power themselves. Hopefully, both men are rational enough to see that they cannot succeed, but we will likely see some tense moments and small flare-ups of fighting.

Pulling Yemen’s diverse political actors into dialogue and forming a transitional government is going to be a very difficult process that will break down, start up, break down, and start up again. This instability is necessary and good. Many diverse former enemies are trying to work out a political compromise. Let’s hope they succeed and that spoiled children can grow up.

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