See Ya, Saleh
Yemen's embattled president struggles on the brink of collapse.
View a slide show of Yemen’s recent street protests.
The writing has been on the wall in Yemen for weeks. In Taiz, a highlands city of half a million, people painted it on huge banners; in Sanaa they baked it into bread; and everywhere they chanted it: Irhal. Go. That single Arabic word has united Yemen’s fractured political opposition, turning old enemies into temporary allies and pushing President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime to the brink of collapse.
The protest movement against Saleh’s 32 years of rule has been growing since Feb. 11, when Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. That day, for the first time, student activists and pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets outside the umbrella of Yemen’s largest opposition grouping, the Joint Meeting Parties. In much the same way Egypt’s 1952 revolution shaped and inspired Yemen’s own uprising a decade later, so too has Egypt’s January 25 Revolution found an echo in Yemen. In addition to demanding Saleh’s resignation, protesters are also calling for key members of his family to surrender their positions in the military.
In fits and starts, for the past six weeks, the protests have gradually incorporated most of Saleh’s domestic opponents into their ranks. Across the south, in Aden, Lahj, and al-Mukalla, pro-secessionists have slowly dropped their calls for a separate state, at least for the moment, and gone on the record stating that their only wish is for Saleh to go. In the far north, where the president has been waging a brutal seven-year civil war against a group known popularly as the Houthis, the rebels added their voice to the mix, marching for the fall of the regime. Many of Saleh’s parliamentary allies have deserted him as well. Some resigned with open letters to the press, while others, like influential tribal leader Sheikh Hussein al-Ahmar, arranged their announcements for maximum publicity.
On Feb. 26, Ahmar joined several other sheikhs from the powerful Hashid confederation at a conference in the northern governorate of Amran. In a fiery speech, the young tribesman denounced Saleh as a corrupt ruler no better than the imams that ruled north Yemen for much of the past millennium. Behind him other men threw their membership cards from Saleh’s ruling GPC party in the dust as proof of their resignation.
The president, who has remained in power for more than three decades largely by deftly playing opposition groups off one another, attempted to stem the tide of tribal defections by doling out bags of cash and distributing complimentary cars. Hussein al-Ahmar, Hamid al-Ahmar, and the rest of their eight brothers countered Saleh by opening their own bank accounts to tribesmen. As the auction for tribal support continued in the north, the protests continued to grow across the rest of the country.
In Taiz, the intellectual and activist capital of the country, protesters gathered in the thousands, camping out downtown and entertaining each other with poetry and chants as they waited for Saleh to get the message. The president tried to stay ahead of the protesters by anticipating potential moves. Like Cairo, Sanaa has a Midan al-Tahrir — Liberation Square. Worried about the precedent from Egypt and the optics of thousands of people demonstrating in the square, Saleh dispatched paid supporters to occupy the area. Undeterred, the protesters set up a tent city outside Sanaa University, dubbing it Sahat al-Tagheer — the Square of Change.
Increasingly desperate to disperse the protesters after weeks of watching their numbers grow, Saleh fatally miscalculated on March 18. Shortly after noon prayers on that Friday, snipers surrounding Sahat al-Tagheer opened fire, killing 52 protesters in several minutes of concentrated shooting. There had been several instances of brutal violence previously in the protests, most notably in Aden, where handfuls of demonstrators have been killed — but nothing like this. Even with French warplanes in the sky over Libya, Al Jazeera devoted hours of its coverage on Friday to the horrific images of bloody corpses being carted into mosques and hospitals near the university. Most of the young men and boys had bullet holes above their eyes or in the back of their heads.
Saleh tried to limit the damage, holding a news conference that evening. He expressed regret at the killings, even calling the dead "the martyrs of democracy," but brazenly insisted that the opposition be blamed for the bloodshed. Few in Yemen seemed convinced. Saleh also stated he was implementing a state of emergency in Yemen, a move that suspends all law in the country and allows the president to take whatever steps he deems necessary. It quickly became clear that even that wasn’t going to be enough. Led by Faisal Amin Abu Ras, Yemen’s ambassador to Lebanon, more resignations started to trickle in. Late Sunday night, Saleh fired his entire cabinet in an effort to prevent its members from resigning en masse.
But the big blow came the next morning on Monday, March 21, Saleh’s 69th birthday, when Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (no relation to Hussein al-Ahmar), the commander of the 1st Armored Division and the most powerful figure in the Army, read out a statement on Al Jazeera, saying that he supported the protesters and that his troops would protect them. His understated performance opened the floodgates. Ahmar, who also commands one of Yemen’s four military zones, is from the president’s own Sanhan tribe. For most of the past three decades, he has protected the president and his interests in the military. His defection was a crushing blow. Shortly after Ahmar’s statement, the commander of the eastern military zone, Muhammad Ali Muhsin, announced his support for the protesters. Within minutes two commanders responsible for half the country had abandoned Saleh.
Many of their colleagues followed their lead, and by the end of the day more than a dozen top commanders made similar announcements, scrambling to avoid being the last one off a sinking ship. Ahmar’s decision also reverberated through Yemen’s civilian leadership, as diplomats abroad and local politicians spent much of Saleh’s birthday calling into Al Jazeera to announce their resignations live on the air.
Backed into a corner, Saleh dug in. He surrounded the presidential palace with tanks from the Republican Guard under the command of his eldest son Ahmad and sent his fired, but still serving, foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, to Riyadh.
Ahmar’s move was a carefully calculated political decision designed to separate most of the Sanhan tribe from Saleh, Ahmad, and four of the president’s nephews, all of whom hold high positions in the military. By coming out in support of the protesters now, Ahmar believes he can save his lucrative job as well as those of key allies, while letting Saleh and his five heirs take the fall for three decades of misrule. Many of the protesters who have been demonstrating for weeks are wary of Ahmar and his intentions, but appear willing to accept his support in order to get rid of Saleh.
The president, who still commands the loyalty of the Air Force, most of the Republican Guard, and the Central Security Forces, is also counting on Saudi Arabia. He is hoping that King Abdullah is more worried about what the fall of another regime in the region will mean for Bahrain and political dissent in Saudi Arabia than he is about the potential for chaos or armed conflict in Yemen. If March 22’s animated speech, in which Saleh warned of civil war, is any indication, the president believes he has the Saudi monarch’s support. And that makes the current standoff in Yemen very dangerous.