Originally published in AJE.


Various factions make plans after the injured president makes a shaky televised address from Saudi Arabia.

For the first time since the attack against the presidential compound which left him injured, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s beleaguered president, made an appearance on Thursday in a prerecorded speech that aired on state television.

His face appeared darkened from burns sustained in the attack, and he had trouble speaking. His bandaged arms did not move during the course of his seven minute speech. Speaking from Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, where he is recovering from injuries, a defiant Saleh said that he would “confront a challenge with a challenge”.

After 33-years of rule and six months of protests calling for him to step down, Saleh appeared as obstinate as ever, stating that his regime welcomes dialogue with all political parties within the framework of the constitution. His supporters dubbed the event as “proof of life” and took to the streets, opening fire into the air to celebrate.

Abdullah M Hamiddadin, a political analyst based in Jeddah, says the speech gave an important boost to his supporters and deflated much of the confidence of his major contenders. It sent a clear message: not only is he alive, but that he is still a relevant player. Hamidaddin – a direct descendent of the Yemeni imamate who was overthrown by a military coup in 1962 – describes Saleh as a genuine survivor. “He’s – relatively speaking – still the strongest man in Yemen, or at least his team is. He has been a liability for the Saudis for a very long while, but a liability that they recognise they have to live with.”

Hamidaddin believes the Saudis gambled on the Ahmar family, the head of Yemen’s most powerful tribe – the Hashid confederation – as possible contenders for power. Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar came out in support of the opposition in March and many believe the Ahmars were simply using the youth protest movement as a stepping stone to power. “The Ahmars had their chance but they proved to be incapable of rallying enough support to tip the power in their favour,” Hamidaddin said.

He argues that Saleh’s own accumulated strength as manifested in the military, the enemies of his contenders, the absence of institutions, and the keenness of Saleh’s tribe, Sanhan, to stay in power – are all factors that make Saleh a formidable opponent.

Possible motives

Others analysts however are unconvinced. “He appeared in incredibly bad shape and you have to wonder what the motivation was to have him speak in that kind of condition,” says Grant Hopkins, a former political consultant in Yemen and founder of ICEX, a geopolitical consulting firm. Hopkins argues that the speech fails to accomplish anything and believes that with no resolution in sight, the Saudis are forced to keep Saleh in the equation.

“You have a robust secessionist movement operating in Aden coupled with the government’s inability to enforce its authority against militants in southern Yemen. There’s also the problem of the collapsing economy and a humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding,” Hopkins said. “‘Proof of life’ doesn’t signal a comeback. In an age of instantaneous communication, a seven minute speech prerecorded in a Saudi military hospital just seems like a last ditch effort to prop up a leader of a government which can no longer offer a sense of political legitimacy or security to the people being governed.”

Members of the youth-led uprising also debate possible motives behind Saleh’s recent speech. Activist and organiser Izzedin Al-Sharabi believes that the speech will not have any effect on their movement. “We still want an end to this regime. Our problem is not with Saleh alone, it is with the entire regime. We seek an end to the corruption and our revolution will continue against the JMP and regime,” said the activist, who also criticised the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a broad opposition coalition of Islamists, socialists and tribal elements.

Freelance reporter and activist Fares Shamsan says the speech served to show his supporters and opponents that he is still alive. “He seemed confused. He didn’t mention anything about returning to Yemen and focused on solutions related to the GCC. All this indicates he won’t be returning to power.” But whether he returns or not does not matter anyway, argus Shamsan. “Our problem now is not with him, but with the JMP.” Formed in 2005, the JMP threw its weight behind the youth movement early on in the revolution. Many accuse its members of hijacking the revolution for their own political interests.

Sidelining young protesters

Shamsan is less optimistic about the fate of the five month-old uprising, currently the longest-running series of protests in the Arab Spring. He is not alone in his feelings and many other youth in Change Square share his disheartenment. “Many believe if negotiations between the JMP and ruling party succeed, the youth will go on to accept the final agreement. The US and Saudis are still pushing for the GCC plan, which only seeks to divide power among the elites. We don’t support negotiations with the regime, but it’s no longer in the hands of the youth. The opposition proved to be weak in the weeks after Saleh’s injury. We sat here for five weeks and did nothing.”

Many demonstrators blame the movement’s stagnation on the JMP and General Ali Muhsin, who are believed to be collaborating against the youth. “We believe the JMP used our movement to pressure the regime into negotiations. Once Saleh left, they turned against us,” Shamsan said. “Any time we tried to demonstrate, the JMP would send Ali Muhsin’s soldiers to push us back. The independent youth here feel like no one is supporting them. My view is the revolution will start to die once negotiations begin.”

Haykal Bafana, an investment banker and attorney residing in the capital Sanaa, argues that Saleh’s departure helped to solidify his position in Yemen. “The attack on Saleh caught the opposition unprepared – whether it’s the escalation they promised, or some sort of structure for transition governance, nothing came about. It caused the movement to self-destruct and lose momentum, as infighting began and differing political aims surfaced.”

Bafana says under the cover of the attack’s aftermath, the regime adopted a wide range of counter revolutionary measures. “In Saleh’s absence, electricity was curtailed, diesel and petrol supplies dried up, security went downhill, water became more scarce, Abyan and Shabwa experienced conflict, there was the al-Qaeda prison escape, and so forth. Within two weeks, the Yemeni public was largely blaming the opposition youth and JMP for the tense situation.” On top of the accusations, Bafana says throughout the period, the opposition were kept off balance by repeated rumors from the regime of Saleh’s health and return.

Notably absent from Saleh’s speech was the subject of al-Qaeda. Saleh’s opponents accuse the regime of cynically allowing Islamic fighters to seize towns in southern Yemen in an attempt to make Saleh appear indispensible to the war on terror. The United States recently began launching drone strikes to deal with the problem. According to Hamidaddin, the threat of al-Qaeda is greatly inflated. “It’s more a tribal issue than one of militancy. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is not a legitimate threat. It’s a burden; a hassle. It cannot sustain itself.”

Hamidaddin argues that various tribes have always fought against the government and resisted its authority. With AQAP he says, it is no different. “Peripheral events in Yemen haven’t mattered for the past 40 years, no matter how violent and massive they are. Such events have been happening all the time. The flavour of militancy doesn’t change its underlying reality: a power struggle between local communities and a central authority that they don’t recognise as legitimate. But all parties have begun to realise that they cannot exclude each other. There is a serious quest towards a resolution.”

Food insecurity

In the short term, Hamidaddin argues that the situation in Yemen is so volatile that only gradual transfer of power can keep the situation intact. “Imagine what a sudden exit of Saleh would mean to the 50,000-plus US trained personnel in the special forces. Or to their elite security apparatus. This is not a country of institutions where you can take away the general, bring in another, and all goes as before. There is a lot of political activity behind the scenes working to create a resolution.”

Ultimately, Hamidaddin believes that these efforts will lead to some form of coalition government. As for the youth-led movement, Hamiddadin says they were never serious contenders to begin with. “They ought to organise in political parties, but their influence will only come in the space which the main powers will leave to them.”

Many analysts and observers believe the greatest threat to Yemen is not AQAP but its collapsing economy and the current humanitarian crisis. According to a report released this month by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the economic situation has deteriorated even further and if the currency continues to plunge, an additional 15 per cent of Yemenis will be pushed below the poverty line.

As the most impoverished Arab country, statistics show that one in three Yemenis is already food insecure and under-nourished. The prices of certain commodities have increased substantially since the start of the unrest and the cost of bread has risen by 50 per cent in the past few months.

A UN mission visiting Yemen released a statement this past Wednesday warning that Yemen needs urgent international aid to stave off a humanitarian crisis. “We remind everyone, whether government or non-government parties, that civilians should not fall as victims of collective punishment because of the power struggle,” the statement said. “The absence of security, the spread of outlaws, obstacles preventing free movement, and the many outcomes of oil and power shortages have greatly influenced the economy and means of transporting food from cities to countryside.”

Hopkins, the analyst, believes the longer Yemen is kept in political limbo, the increased likelihood of civil war. “There’s a fuel shortage, people are starving, it’s quickly turning to absolute chaos – Saleh’s speech doesn’t change that. The story that quite frankly no one is interested in, is the ensuing humanitarian crisis. Everyone is focused on Saleh and there is little interest in the suffering of the people as this political contest thrashes itself out.”

For background on divisions within the opposition, read Yemen’s Splintered Opposition.

originally published at AJE

Since President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure immediately after the presidential palace was attacked June 3, tensions within Change Square have become more visible. Many demonstrators in Sana’a are now turning their attention towards their leadership, which is comprised of twenty individuals collectively known as the organising committee. The committee handles the logistics and coordinates demonstrations on behalf of demonstrators. Its critics accuse it of marginalising the voice of the youth while monopolising the decision making. Salah al-Sharafi, founder of the Union of Movements for Independent Youth, says that many of the youth have tried to voice their concerns to the committee, but to no avail.

Sharafi, along with other protesters, accuse organisers of patronising for the religiously conservative Islah party. “They aren’t trying to solve problem because they are getting their orders from people on top, from men like Hamid Ahmar.” A successful businessman, Hamid al-Ahmar heads Islah and comes from one of the most powerful tribes in Yemen, the Hashid confederation. Hamid’s older brother, Sadiq al-Ahmar, heads the tribe and came out in support of the opposition this past March. Many believe the Ahmar family is simply using the youth movement as a stepping stone to power.

Demonstrators have begun to publicly dissent by holding daily sit-ins. According to Sharafi, participants are routinely beaten by members of Islah and the security committee, which handles security matters within the Square. “Islah wants to silence us and to co-opt our movement so they can lead negotiations,” says Sharafi. Although tensions between opposition youth and organisers have existed for some time, the tipping point came when a few demonstrators organised a sit-in near Vice President Abd al Rab Mansur al Hadi’s home on June 8. Hadi took over as acting president after Saleh’s departure. Demonstrators were beaten and chased away by soldiers from General Ali Muhsin’s 1st Armored Division. Muhsin defected in March and pledged to protect demonstrators within the Square. Sharafi says that soldiers called demonstrators thugs and accused them of working for the regime. He continued, “they beat us with sticks but we refused to leave. So they opened fire into the air and people began running out of fear.”

Troublemakers are the real problem

Freelance reporter and activist Fares Shamsan says the soldiers were sent by the organising committee because they did not approve of the sit-in. The committee, however, denies involvement. According to their spokesman Wasim al-Qureishi, “We did not support the sit-in because it placed the lives of demonstrators in danger. But we had nothing to do with the soldiers being there.” Al-Qureishi says the area is considered a danger zone by the committee because Ahmed Ali- the son of President Saleh and commander of the elite Republican Guard- is engaged in a current power struggle with Hadi. He points to an incident on June 6, when a small force from the Republican Guard attacked Hadi’s home with gunfire. “Muhsin’s soldiers did not feel it was safe for demonstrators to be there and did not want to be drawn into violent confrontation with the Republican Guard. We had nothing to do with their decision to attack protesters and were very upset when we found out.” Sharafi says this is not the first time that the organising committee has rejected a youth-organised demonstration. According to him, the difference now is that soldiers show up to forcibly disperse demonstrators. Al-Qureishi however says the accusations are false. “We told them to provide us with names of organisers giving out these orders. We asked for evidence. They never provided it.” Al-Qureishi says that the real problem lies with troublemakers sent by the regime to sow divisions within the Square. “They were sent to weaken the revolution. They encourage the youth to go into these dangerous areas. We ask them to reconsider, but they refuse. We can’t stop them; they do what they want in the end.”

However, Shamsan says the idea of submitting names of specific individuals is absurd and says that organisers are using the same line of argument as President Saleh. “During the start of protests, Saleh would also claim his soldiers were guarding demonstrators. Whenever we were attacked, he would tell us to provide him names of those responsible. At the same time, he and his supporters would accuse us of being spies. What is he doing protecting spies then? Does this make much sense? And now the committee is starting to sound more and more like the regime. It’s very troubling.”

In another incident a week after the sit-in, Sharafi and a few other demonstrators attempted to get on stage to condemn organisers and the security committee. “The security committee stopped us before we could get on stage,” says Sharafi. “They asked us why we spoke bad of the organisers and I told them because you do not represent the revolutionaries. You work for Islah.” Sharafi says he was then beaten and detained by the men. “They control the stage. They are stealing our voice.” When Sharafi’s friends, including Shamsan, went to look for him at the security committee’s office, they were told by its head Nabil Gerbani that he was detained because he had stabbed two soldiers. According to Shamsan, they did not believe the accusation and decided to look into it by visiting the makeshift hospital and nearby Science and Technology hospital to see if any stab victims had recently been admitted. The doctors from both facilities told them that no one had come in recently with any stab wounds. “We returned to the security committee and demanded they release Salah, but Nabil told us to get a lawyer. We then approached an attorney in the Square and asked him to come with us. When we headed back, Nabil Gerbani had left and someone else took over his shift.” Shamsan says they demanded the release of their friend and decided to remain in the office until he was released. The committee eventually released him at two in the morning.

Harassment is nothing new

When asked about the incident, al-Qureishi says the security committee was attempting to keep order and decorum within the Square. “Some young people were calling for members in the committee to step down and be replaced. We’ve already replaced members several times since the start of the revolution. But when you have thousands of people in the Square, you can’t please everyone. The security committee asked them to get off the stage but they refused, so they were arrested.”

Salah, who himself used to be a member of Islah, says that he left the party because he realised he did not share their views. “Islah is filled with fundamentalists. They do not respect the rights of others and threaten people who disagree with them.” According to Izzedin Ayadi, a demonstrator, members of Islah routinely threaten and harass people inside the Square. In a recent incident, Ayadi says three young men were beaten by members of Islah for dancing under the stage. “They were told that it is a sin to dance in the presence of women.”

Demonstrators say that the harassment is nothing new and that Islah has been attempting to assert control since the start of the revolution. Ihsan al-Dugaysh, 33, says that members from Islah began threatening her when she set up a tent and began to offer daily lessons to children staying in the square with their families. She taught a co-ed class and students ranged in age from five to ten. About a month into the lessons in late February, Ihsan was warned to stop giving the lessons. “They demanded I stop teaching both boys and girls in the same setting. I refused. They sent their thugs to take apart the tent that I used as a makeshift classroom and I was forced to stop teaching.” Ihsan warns that Islah is filled with extremists and says that they pose a danger to the movement and the future of Yemen. “They are given too much power in the square. If we don’t stop them now, extremists will be running this country. They don’t want progress for Yemen, especially for its women.”

According to political analyst Abdullah M Hamidaddin, the Ahmar family and Ali Muhsin are primarily to blame for the rift in the square. “Today I think it’s more an aggregate of decision makers, with no one central in command. But overall I believe the Ahmars are the main driving force behind this all.” Khaled al-Anesi, human rights attorney and one of the main organisers in Change Square, says he handed in his resignation to the organising committee two months ago. “I saw that they were not taking the demands of the youth seriously. They were taking their cues from political parties and those involved with the GCC-mediated initiative. The youth on the other hand want a new script. They seek the immediate establishment of a transitional council.” Al-Anesi believes that the Joint Meeting Parties, the official opposition, is influencing decisions in the Square. “I think the organising committee should be completely independent of these interests and develop a plan of its own that is more in line with the demands of the youth.”

The JMP was formed in 2005 by five opposition parties seeking political and economic reform. It threw its weight behind the youth movement early on in the revolution. According to Hamidaddin, Islah is the main party in the coalition. Unlike the opposition youth, the JMP supported the GCC plan. As a result, many within the opposition do not believe the JMP is after their best interests. According to Hamidaddeen, “Their stated goals are the same, except the JMP is more willing to make concessions. Take the GCC initiative, the JMP was for it. Many youth voices were against it. The JMP has its own agenda.” According to Hamidaddin, since Saleh’s departure, the JMP has been holding meetings with Hadi. “This means they recognise his authority. The only thing JMP is interested in is sharing power in government.” Sharafi says that for their part, the youth did not support the GCC initiative because it would not change the regime. “We don’t recognise Hadi’s rule. We want a transition government established immediately and we want to begin prosecuting all criminals. We don’t believe in negotiating with a regime that has blood on its hands.” He goes on to say that the organising committee is an arm of the JMP. “JMP is composed of many parties but Islah is the party in control. It’s the same with the organising committee.”

Adamant demonstrators

Al-Qureishi disagrees with the characterisation and insists that party affiliations of individual members do not influence decision making. “We are a diverse group, Islah does not even make up the majority.” Hamidaddin however says that although other parties are involved, they are not as organised as Islah and lack financial backing. “Plus they are not given enough space to stand out. Islah itself is not a monolithic group. It is a coalition with different power centers but I think the main trend in them uses democracy as a stepping stone towards power.” Hamiddadin accuses their spiritual leader, Sheikh Zindani, of being an extreme opportunist. “The Muslim brotherhood in general is shrewd and opportunistic,” In March, Zindani made controversial remarks in a speech during a demonstration. “He called for the reestablishment of the caliphate,” according to al-Sharafi. “Many of us were surprised and concerned with his remarks. The youth want a democratic, secular government that respects the rights of its citizens. But this is the sort of dangerous mentality we are dealing with among organisers.”

According to Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and expert witness on the country to the US Congress, “Islah and the rest of the official opposition didn’t launch the protests – only the youth had the manpower to do that. But the youth are, broadly speaking political novices, and they don’t know how best to use the power they have. Islah sees an opportunity to co-opt the movement for its own goals and it is trying to do that. Islah didn’t launch these protests but they are trying to ride them as far as they can.

For their part, the youth continue to assert their claims but now find themselves battling opponents on two fronts. Hamidaddin says that fear is guiding the decisions of the JMP and the organising committee and believes that the youth will ultimately be sidelined if they do not organise for the next phase. “The JMP knows the power Saleh’s team has. They were hoping his absence would help. But it hasn’t. Despite everything, the other party is holding strong. They don’t want to escalate matters further. And they are looking for a resolution which takes into considerations the material hard existing balance of power. The youth are not strong enough nor are they able nor want to resort to violence.”

Demonstrators are now taking matters into their hands and along with sit-ins against both the regime and their leadership, many of the youth have begun documenting evidence of Islah’s maltreatment of demonstrators. Sharafi says that the head of the security committee, Nabil Gerbani, threatened to hand them over to Muhsin’s soldiers if they continued to collect evidence of the harassment. “We are not afraid. We will continue to protest both the regime and our leadership. They will not steal this revolution from us. If it comes down to it, we will remain here until the last drop of blood.”

General Ali Muhsin, commander of the 1st armored division and President Saleh’s half-brother, defected in March to support the opposition. Although never officially announcing he was joining the opposition, he vowed that he and his soldiers would protect demonstrators in Change Square. His move however was widely seen as self-motivated and many speculate he is preparing himself for a post-Saleh future.

On June 3, President Saleh was attacked at the presidential compound along with several top officials. They were flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi took over leadership of the country.

Ahmed Ali, Saleh’s son and head of the elite Republican Guard, appeared to challenge Hadi’s new authority when he moved into the presidential palace. Hadi meanwhile continued to work out of his office at the Ministry of Defense.

In a seemingly contradictory move, Ali Muhsin’s soldiers were ordered to stand guard outside of VP Hadi’s home, allegedly protecting him from both Ahmed Ali and demonstrators. This week, demonstrators marched toward Hadi’s home and held a 24 hour sit-in. During the demonstration, they were attacked by Mushin’s soldiers. On the surface, the move is very telling and leaves one questioning Muhsin’s motives.

With every shift of power, it appears that Muhsin and his batallion are never far behind.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Demonstrators Attacked by VP Al-Hadis Home.avi, posted with vodpod

 

 

On the evening of June 9, nearly one week after the attack on Saleh’s compound, the skies over Sana’a lit up with gunfire. Explosions rocked the city and it was the most intense display of gunfire yet. Terrified, people ran for cover wherever they could. Many thought war had broken out. A few hours later, state TV confirmed that it was just the Republican Guard celebrating Saleh’s successful surgery. Pro-Saleh supporters would join the “celebrations” by going out into the streets and firing into the air. Meanwhile, the rest of Sana’a remained terrified, convinced that what they were experiencing were not “celebrations” but a message aimed at them from Ahmed Ali. It was at worst a form of psychological warfare, at best a reckless show of force.

 

 

Saleh takes a hit

June 4, 2011

It was an especially chaotic day in Sana’a, if that’s even possible to believe at this stage. The biggest news to come out of today is that of Saleh’s injury. He was wounded by shellfire as he was praying when his presidential palace came under attack. Government officials say he escaped with light injuries but six top officials were more seriously hurt while three of his guards were killed. The details of his injury remain unclear.

Many tonight are speculating that he perhaps sustained more critical injuries in light of the fact that he did not make a speech tonight, as government officials had originally announced he would. Instead, in what is seen as a huge sign of weakness, he released a short audio statement in which he reiterated his commitment to defeating the Ahmar clan.

Hamid al-Ahmar, brother to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, accused Saleh of orchestrating the attack in order to tarnish their image.

Here are the rest of today’s updates:

  • The Hadda neighborhood of Sana’a was hit with heavy mortar shelling and gunfire when government forces attacked Hamid al-Ahmar’s home from Nahdayn mountain. The presidential palace is also in Hadda and was attacked by shellfire. Sounds of sporadic shelling tonight continue to come out of Hadda
  • Attacks against Hasaba continued today
  • Scattered skirmishes along the parameters of Change Square between the 1st Armored Division and Saleh’s armed thugs
  • I observed many trying to flee Sana’a today with their belongings strapped to the tops of their vehicles. Bus drivers were refusing to drive out of Sana’a and were rejecting passengers because of fears of being attacked on their way out of the city. There are reported clashes along roads outside of Sana’a
  • Gas prices continue to climb along with the cost of food and just about everything else
  • The airport closes periodically depending on the severity of clashes. Professor James Spencer’s interesting theory is that the airport is a joint military and civilian airfield. “By not allowing civilian aircraft onto the runway, the YAF can provide far quicker close air support to the Government forces (indeed, the aircraft may be sitting on the runways ready to go.)”

I tried to get a picture of what happened last night in Sana’a by talking to several officers and activists. Below is a list of last night’s conflict zones as far as I could determine.

  •  Soldiers belonging to Ali Mohsen’s 1st Armored Division confirmed that Saleh’s security forces along with thugs attempted to enter the Square from the north side (area known as Sawad Hanash) but were repelled back by Mohsen’s soldiers. This is the first time they actually made an attempt at entering the square, and I was told they most likely would try again tonight.
  • The area by Commerce Court (20th street), which is south of the Square, had snipers stationed on buildings and baltajia, or paid thugs, walking the streets.  Many people believe these thugs are actually officers dressed in civilian clothes. They were intimidating people going in and out of the Square. But no conflict.
  • There was conflict in Hasaba, as there is every night between Ahmar’s men and security forces.
  • On al-Ghada Street, about half a kilometer from Change Square and to the west, thugs and security forces were gathered. Security forces were shooting mortar shells from this area (al-Ghada) to an area called Jawlat Saba, which is filled with Ahmar fighters.
  • According to reports, Sheikh Mohamed Abdullah al-Qadhi, who is  a member of Parliament and supports the opposition, had his home attacked in al-Asbuhi last night. He’s related to the President. Al-Asbuhi is located about 7 kilometers from the Square (about 15-20 minutes by car without traffic), west of Sana’a.
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