By Dexter Filkins
Mar 22, 2011- President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen gave a defiant speech Tuesday, promising that any attempt to push him from office would lead to civil war. Just how many Yemenis were actually paying attention to him was another matter.
A wave of defections this week from Saleh’s government, including General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the man regarded as the country’s most important military commander, have prompted many Yemenis to conclude that Saleh’s departure, one way or another, is now a matter of time. “I think the end is clear to everyone now,” Mohammed Abulahoum, a senior leader of the Baqil tribe—one of the country’s largest—and a former confidant of the President, said. “Either they will give him a good exit strategy or he will give them a fight.” The big question Tuesday was which it would be.
After the stunning defection on Monday of al-Ahmar, the chief of the military forces in Yemen’s northwest, the center of gravity seemed to shift away from the presidential palace and to the protesters in the streets. For weeks, the protesters who have gathered at Sana’a University have been watched by police and soldiers. Some of those soldiers have shot and beaten the protesters.
On Tuesday, the police and soldiers were gone. In their place were checkpoints manned by al-Ahmar’s First Armored Division. Their orders were to protect the protesters from harm—that is, harm coming from anyone, even other elements of the Yemeni military.
General al-Ahmar, an uneasy partner of Saleh for thirty years, announced his mutiny following the massacre last Friday of at least fifty-two demonstrators. At least two hundred were wounded. The survivors said they were fired on by snipers in masks and by uniformed members of the Yemeni security services. Saleh denied that he ordered the attacks, but few Yemenis appear to believe him. The senior officials defecting from Saleh’s government are making their opinions known by leaving.
In his speech Tuesday, Saleh was almost entirely aggressive. He vowed not to be forced from office by anyone in the Yemeni military. He accused the protesters of being directed by “foreign agendas.” And he said the Yemeni opposition leaders, if given power, would turn on each other and send the country into anarchy. The overriding impression that Saleh conveyed is that he is ready for a fight.
“Those who want to reach power through a coup will be unable,” Saleh said. “This is impossible. The scenario will turn into a civil war.” To drive that point home, perhaps, six tanks took up positions around the presidential palace.
So the battle lines have been drawn. But it’s not clear just how many people are standing on the President’s side. Fewer and fewer Yemenis appear to be—whether Saleh knows it or not.
“When someone has been in power for thirty-three years,” Abulahoum said, “they begin to believe that they know everything better than everyone else.”
Source: The New Yorker