Scud showdown in Sanaa

Scud showdown in Sanaa

More than a year after President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down — and almost two years after protests against his dictatorship flooded the streets of Sanaa — Yemen’s political crisis continues. Saleh was formally ousted in February in a referendum that made his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, his successor, but while the former president is in retirement, much of the government he built in his 33 year reign is not. This includes the former president’s son, Ahmed Saleh, as well as his collection of Scud missiles.

The younger Saleh was once considered Ali Abdullah’s heir apparent, but his presidential prospects were largely quashed by the popular uprising in 2011. For now, he appears to be biding his time as the commander of the Yemeni military’s elite Republican Guard, a post he received while his father was still in power. The transition plan for Yemen calls for a reorganization of the Yemeni military to break up the influence of prominent power brokers in command positions — and soon after taking office, Hadi removed several Saleh-connected officers from their posts, including the elder Saleh’s relatives commanding the air force and presidential guard. Ahmed has managed to stay at the head of the Republican Guard for now, and Hadi has appeared wary of challenging him outright.

Hadi’s efforts to whittle away Saleh’s influence may have hit an impasse, though, as Ahmed Saleh has now refused to handover Republican Guard Scud missiles to the Yemeni Ministry of Defense. Sources in Hadi’s office told Reuters that Saleh’s refusal "has caused a crisis between the two sides," and that the president has threatened to rescind the immunity granted to Ahmed Saleh as part of the transition deal.

This latest round of power jockeying comes amid preparations for Yemen’s national dialogue, in which representatives of Yemen’s many tribal, political, and religious factions will meet to discuss a new constitutional framework for the country.  Preparations for the dialogue have been slow, with some parties — including key elements of Yemen’s southern secessionist movement — refusing to join other groups at the negotiating table.

The Scud standoff, though, is a reminder that Yemen’s transition will not exclusively be decided at the much-discussed dialogue. During the country’s political crisis in 2011, the popular movement was at times eclipsed by feuds in the capital between political, military, and tribal oligarchs, each wielding their own armed faction — these included former President Saleh and his brood, but also prominent military commander Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and (unrelated to him) the al-Ahmar brothers, who are influential in the Hashid Tribal Federation, Yemen’s largest tribal bloc. These tensions have been mostly dormant for the past year, but the power players are all still there, waiting. And if the national dialogue falls apart, no one wants to be caught unprepared.