Yemen; Sinking from All Sides

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July 18, 2011

By Lev Yuriditsky

While the majority of the U.S. and Western world focuses on the Libyan Revolution and occasionally glances at Syria, a grave situation is developing in Yemen – A civil war, revolution, humanitarian crisis, and very real threat of a terrorist take-over in the south.

For the past five months, Yemeni’s from every group in the country have called on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. This conflict could have been resolved months ago when the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) drafted a proposal with conditions for Saleh’s resignation and a transition to a new government, but Saleh backed out of the signing several times. Saleh’s stubbornness led to violent clashes between his supporters and protesters demanding his resignation. In Yemen, a country run by tribal loyalties, many from his own tribe joined the opposition in protest of his violent crackdowns. The opposition took over many important government buildings and launched an attack on Saleh’s compound, resulting in serious injury to Saleh and forcing him to flee to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where he has been recovering from his wounds while still holding on to power through his sons and other relatives, some of whom command military units.

In accordance with the constitution, vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is now the acting president. In his new position, Hadi is being pulled in all directions. On the one hand, he is and has always been deeply loyal to Saleh and is reluctant, possibly out of fear as well, to take greater authority than Saleh would approve. The opposition, however, is pressuring Hadi to formally assume presidential authority. Many of the groups in the opposition believe that Hadi is the best man for the job. For that reason alone, he most likely is. This opinion is shared by the West, as well.

At the same time, forces loyal to Saleh and his family do not see Hadi as legitimate, but only a temporary place-holder until Saleh returns. Those loyal to Saleh are not willing to hand over power to Hadi and use the threat of force to preserve the ailing president’s position. Earlier this month, security forces loyal to Saleh’s son and nephews were posted in front of Hadi’s residence, a sign that many interpreted as a warning to Hadi not to cross any red lines imposed by Saleh and his family. Leaders from the opposition, for their part, vowed to protect Hadi if he does take power.

The situation in Yemen is far more than just a political conflict. It is an outright disaster. The security situation has deteriorated to the point that important parts of the south have been taken over by Al Qaeda. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said Yemen is rapidly becoming Al Qaeda’s center of gravity. The U.S. is using un-manned drones to help fight off the militants. The C.I.A. is working with Yemeni security forces to help them fight the battle on the ground. Even Russia vowed to unlimitedly support for Yemen in preserving stability. The international community and the Yemen leadership does understand the gravity of the situation. A stronger Al Qaeda in Yemen means a stronger Al Qaeda in nearby Somalia as well.

In addition to the security issues, Yemen is facing economic hardships that may just catapult the country into the poorest spot in the world. The already impoverished nation’s oil production is down nearly half from last year’s 300,000 barrel-per-day. The country’s oil minister admitted last month that ongoing political turmoil and attacks on the nation’s pipelines are pushing Yemen toward economic catastrophe, which is developing into a humanitarian crisis.

There is an immense water shortage, causing prices to triple, power outages caused by saboteurs, and lines to fill up gas are stretching to two kilometers, resulting in a growing black market for gas. The interior ministry last week accused 43 members of the opposition Joint Meeting Parties of attacking state oil pipelines and electricity stations. Whether these accusations are true or not, one thing is for sure – economic troubles in a country like Yemen, along with its volatile security situation and increasing political instability make this country an international priority to restore stability.

What all the parties of Yemen must realize is that it will take a compromise to solve the Yemen issue. It won’t be fixed by a hostile take-over of the government, by ousting everyone associated with Saleh. Unfortunately, as much as the opposition in Yemen has yoked the various groups and individuals together and made truces with each other in order to oust the current regime, this won’t last long. There are many different tribes and political factions with their own interests; there are secularists, socialists, southern secessionists, and Islamists.

It is unlikely that, even if the opposition does oust the current regime, the more extreme groups will be able to compromise with the moderate groups or extremes from the other side. It seems highly unlikely that they will be able to propose one uniform direction for Yemen. The lack of cohesion and constant political rivalries that will result will only help Al Qaeda gain ground and allow the economy to deteriorate worse than it already has. The country needs stability as a priority, it cannot survive without it. Signs of fatigue in the opposition are showing already. The once vast tent city – known as “Change Square” – in Sana’a is becoming less and less dense. The crowds are beginning to disperse; the bloggers and protesters are losing their zeal. Some members of the opposition cite the recent appearance of Saleh on T.V. is a source of discouragement, others blame the U.S. for its lack of involvement, and some simply recognize the facts on the ground – things have gotten worse, the country is suffering economically, the protesters families need them, no significant help (aside from fighting off Al Qaeda) has been received from the international community, no strong leadership from the opposition has been formed or even identified to take control, and while there are groups that advocate a peaceful protest, the majority of the tribal leaders behind the anti-Saleh movement don’t and are much more willing and able to use force.

Right now, the best solution is Vice President Hadi formally taking control and being the head of the new or transitional government. The majority of the opposition supports him and can agree on this. His taking control of the transition will allow him to work with the opposition and the government to come to a compromise that everyone can be satisfied with. Recognizing the desires of the people and the need for Saleh to step down and his family to abscond from their position of power, the international community and especially the GCC need to increase pressure on Saleh to not return, but will most likely need to provide him with protection from the courts and a comfortable living.

Saleh returning and restoring himself to power is not just bad, but nearly impossible. If he comes back, he will most certainly be assassinated or attacked again, and if not, he simply would not be able to hold on to power. His return would likely restore the original vigor of the revolution as they will now have a target other than each other. Significant members of his closest circle, even from his own tribe, have left him to join the opposition, and they wield significant power.

The situation in Yemen is a multi-player game of chess with most players calling check on each other and no movement in sight except for one massive forfeit. Something has to give and soon.

Lev Yuriditsky is an Associate of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

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