- By Jeb Boone
On Monday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe stated that freezing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s assets should be discussed as soon as possible. Such an assets freeze has been an action pushed by nationwide protesters for months and is widely seen as the first step that must be taken if Yemen’s 10-month long political stalemate is to come to an end.
After being tricked into believing that Saleh would sign a Gulf Cooperation Council brokered power transfer deal three times, the international community has finally realized that Saleh has no intention of leaving power until at least 2013, the end of his official presidential term of office. Other than using language to "condemn" the killing of peaceful protesters, an ineffectual U.N. resolution, and asking nicely, an assets freeze would be the first real attempt to put pressure on President Saleh to step down.
Meanwhile in Sana’a, looming above the entrances to Change Square are enormous 60 foot high signs demanding an end of Saleh’s 33-year long hold on power over Yemen. While some of these banners are partially in Arabic, all of them have "Get out" printed across them in English. Protesters often wave English placards during demonstrations and flock to journalists with their homemade English signs.
Protest committees have released open letters to President Obama and other western leaders, pleading for the international community to step up pressure on Saleh to follow up on his promise to leave power. While it is only a pledge to discuss the freezing of Saleh’s assets with other European leaders, such a pledge is the first of its kind to take concrete action against Saleh beyond simply rhetoric.
Short of asking for foreign military intervention, which most protesters reject outright, Yemenis have done all they can to make their struggle known to those abroad. Fully aware of their own lack of coverage in the international media, Yemenis have sought to increase their visibility in the international community from the outset of the protest movement last February by providing English language resources to Western journalists, establishing committees made up of English language speakers to issue press releases and hold press conferences, and making sure every protest sign was in both English and Arabic.
The U.S. and other Western nations continue to see Saleh as an ally against terrorism and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) but in fact the Yemeni president is an enabler of further unrest. While rival political and military factions continue to battle in Yemen’s urban centers, fighting endures in the country’s rural tribal areas as well. Virtually impossible for Western journalists to cover, fighting in the Arhab and Nihm regions of the Sana’a governorate between tribesmen and loyalist military forces have gone on for months with Arhabis threatening to seize control of the Sana’a airport several times.
Further, Yemen’s northern Houthi Shiite rebels have been bogged down in fighting with Salafis in the northern governorates of Al-Jawf and Sa’ada for months. Salafism, an ideology closely associated with Islamic fundamentalism, is also incredibly anti-Shia, going so far as to call Shia Muslims unbelievers. In some cases, AQAP have claimed responsibility for attacks against Houthi rebels in Sa’ada and al-Jawf.
Most interestingly, several Yemenis, including government officials, are claiming that Saudi Arabia is indeed funding and supporting these Salafi tribesmen in a fight against the Houthis, a group of individuals that Saudi Arabia is incredibly fearful of. Shocking the world and embarrassing the Saudi military, the Houthi rebels beat back a Saudi advance into Sa’ada in 2009 after some rebel elements began to cross the border into the Kingdom. With an army full of inexperienced troops, Riyadh will do everything in its power to contain the rebellion within Yemeni borders. Supporting Salafi sheikhs in Al-Jawf and parts of Sa’ada with weapons and funding is perhaps the most effective method of doing so.
Continuing to tarry in putting real pressure on Saleh to leave power is directly contributing to prolonging conflicts in Yemen’s rural areas. Saleh’s sons and nephews have been taking the fight to anti-government tribesmen in the rural areas and inside the cities beginning with the war that took place in downtown Sana’a last May between the Hashid tribal confederation and loyalist forces. These tribes never openly threatened the regime through force of arms but simply pledged support to the "peaceful youth revolution." By deciding the openly attack tribes, Saleh has opened Yemen’s ancient Pandora’s box of tribal fighting prowess.
These tribal areas, often cited as "lawless," are in most cases governed by tribal law and relatively stable. While rural areas under the governance of tribalism does not necessarily give open spaces for AQAP to operate in, violence and unrest in these rural areas absolutely presents an opportunity for AQAP to take hold of rural areas and operate freely.
Indeed, such a situation exists in the Abyan governorate of South Yemen where the military has been battling Salafist fighters for months. The effects of the fighting are beginning to be felt in the southern port city of Aden, where suicide attacks and assassination attempts have become the order of the day. Aden residents and internally-displaced persons in Abyan are continually fearful of an all-out assault on the city. Unrest in the Marib governorate have starved the entire country of electricity and fuel and continues to contribute to the national state of decay now present in urban areas.
To stop further economic and political deterioration as well as reinstituting stability across the country, the international pressure on Saleh will have to increase. Freezing his assets is a good place to start, as many Yemeni protesters have harped on since February, but it may take much more. Members of his family are still deeply entrenched in positions of power in the military and other branches of the government. For a solution to be found, international pressure must also be exerted on them to relinquish their positions of power as well.
Jeb Boone is a freelance journalist and writer focusing on Yemen and is the former managing editor of the Yemen Times and the Yemen Observer. In 2011, Boone covered and reported on Yemen’s uprising as a freelance journalist.