In Yemen, A Revolution in Reverse

A fuel crisis prompts worries that the old regime is exploiting instability to bring itself back to power.


SANAA, Yemen — On June 10, tribesmen in Yemen’s Marib province attacked a power plant that supplies Sanaa, the capital with the bulk of its electricity, plunging the city into darkness. A day later, as diesel power generators ran out of fuel, festering frustration with the deteriorating security and feeble economy boiled over. Groups of young men started blocking off first small side streets and then major roads in Sanaa with barricades of burning tires. Plumes of smoke rose above the city as those cars that had fuel found themselves snarled up in seemingly never-ending traffic jams. Soldiers appeared on the streets clad in riot gear, firing live ammunition over the heads of protestors at Tahrir Square in central Sanaa.

For many in Yemen, the past few months have been an increasingly unwelcome reminder of the darkest days of 2011. Then, as infighting between former allies in the regime of President Saleh threatened to tear the country apart, the economy ground to a halt. Supply of electricity, fuel, and water dwindled, and prices shot up — at least, where basic goods were available. Neighbors fought one another over liters of water. The poverty rate rose above 50 percent, where it has been stubbornly stuck ever since. Three years on, lines over half a mile long stretch out from gas stations in the capital, Sanaa. Electricity supply is erratic at best. In some parts of the city, lights flicker on for a few minutes at a time before cutting out again. The cost of black market fuel has doubled, as has the price of non-government supply water.

The security situation is also unsteady. The military has been fighting two inconclusive campaigns, against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local franchise of the radical Islamist group, in the south, and the Houthis, a militant Zaydi Shiite revivalist movement, in the northern province of Amran that borders Sanaa. Assassinations, terrorist attacks, and kidnappings are a day-to-day occurrence across the country.

In 2011 protestors called for a new president and system; on June 11, they called for the restoration of Yemen’s old order. Some demanded that Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president since February 2012 who has been overseeing a troubled transition to federal democracy, step down. Others took aim at the country’s interim prime minister, Mohammed Salem Basindwah, who has come to symbolize the weak management of Yemen’s economy. "Salam Allah al-Afash," came another chant: "May Allah’s Peace be on al-Afash." The chant was a reference to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s proper surname, which was a state secret for much of his time in power, but is now used to signal his humble origins and his status as a man of the people as he undergoes a remarkable reinvention from despised autocrat to fondly remembered former leader.

This new unrest is creating an opening for Yemen’s many opposing factions to pick up where they left off three years ago, and will potentially bring the country’s experiment in political transition to a sudden halt. It is, says one observer, "2011 in reverse."

But not everyone buys this story. People in Hadi’s camp see the current crisis as a carefully orchestrated attempt to bring down the president — who formally succeeded Saleh in a one-man election in February 2012 — and derail Yemen’s internationally-backed political transition. According to several people with knowledge of the president’s thinking say, Hadi is convinced that groups linked to Saleh are behind the attacks on a vital oil export pipeline and a power station in Marib, a view that is backed by officials at the state oil company that operates the pipeline. "These attacks are coming from groups who are being paid by people with interests in seeing big problems in Yemen," an executive at the oil firm says.

The attacks have cut off a vital revenue stream from oil exports. Additional attacks on the country’s main refinery in Aden have forced the government to import fuel from international markets and sell it at a loss at heavily subsidized prices, incurring considerable losses. These tribesmen, backed by shadowy interest groups in Sanaa, are the ones causing the fuel crisis and wider economic woes, officials at the finance and oil ministries say.

People close to the president are clear on who is to blame for the burgeoning crisis. "There is no doubt," a senior presidential advisor, who asks to remain anonymous, told me, "that what happened [on June 11] was in preparation for a coup. It was organized by a certain group within Saleh’s circle."

According to the advisor, whose claims are supported by several other government officials, this group bussed people into Sanaa the night before the protests and distributed the tires used to set up the roadblocks at strategic points across the city. (In the photo above, Yemenis construct roadblocks at the start of the June 11 protests.) They also printed thousands of posters featuring Saleh’s face in preparation for what they hoped would become a huge protest movement, the advisor said.

Hadi’s response to the protests was to reshuffle the cabinet to bring in new ministers of finance, oil, electricity, and foreign affairs, including several people he believes are loyal to him. He promised to bring fuel and power back to the capital, and sent members of his presidential security detail to shut down Yemen Today, a television channel run by Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party. The channel had been used to direct the protests, the advisor claims. "They were announcing that on Zubairi street there are no demonstrations and so on," he says. "They were sending a message telling people where to go."

Two days later, Hadi sent loyalist troops to seize control of Ali Abdullah Saleh Mosque, the former president’s $60 million monument to himself that towers over the Sanaa skyline. According to the advisor, the mosque and its grounds were used to plan and stage the June 11 protests, and were being used to store broadcast equipment that might have been used to return Yemen Today to the air. "They wanted to take the equipment out, but the army prevented them," he says.

The protests have abated, for now at least. Yet the fact that Hadi can do little to stop the attacks, or to bring Saleh properly to heel, speaks volumes about the precariousness of his position. The government continues to pay tribesmen in Marib tens of millions of dollars to stop the attacks and allow engineers to repair the damaged infrastructure without fear of harm. Many tribesmen call the oil and electricity ministries hours before the attacks to let them know they are coming, sources at the electricity, oil, and interior ministries say, but the military does nothing. Rather than arresting the people behind the June 11 unrest, Hadi is said to
be in negotiations to allow Yemen Today to return to the air after moderating its content.

While the economic crisis may well be man-made, it is still very real and continues to threaten Yemen’s stability. The fact remains that two and a half years after Saleh agreed to step down, Yemenis have seen little improvement in their day-to-day lives, leaving many yearning for the return of life before the Arab Spring and a strongman in Saleh’s mold.

Saleh’s people may have started the unrest on June 11 but many of those who took the streets had nothing to do with him or his party, and this is something that should trouble Hadi. "Under Saleh, things were bad, but now they are so much worse," said Ahmed, a 23-year-old from Taiz who took part in a protest near Yemen’s Tahrir Square. "I took part in the protests in 2011 and I don’t want him to come back, but we need someone like him: Someone strong."

Peter Salisbury is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Sanaa, Yemen, whose work has appeared in the Economist, Financial Times, and Foreign Policy, among others.