The Arab spring brought millions of Yemenis out on to the streets but Saleh's dynastic ambitions are intact. What went wrong?
guardian.co.uk, Monday 29 August 2011
While the world focuses on events in Libya, less telegenic actions unfold in Yemen. There, rather than the plucky rebels vanquishing the dictator and his cronies, the ruling clique has succeeded in clinging to power.
Although Yemen had some activists before the Arab spring, most domestic politics was loyal rather than oppositional. This political stagnation continued until events in Tunisia and Egypt electrified the debate and brought the people in their millions on to Yemen's streets.
The regime responded in its customary fashion: offering interminable talks and promising concessions, but threatening and delivering violence. The slaughter of peaceful protesters in Sanaa caused a schism both within the ruling General People's Congress (GPC), and President Saleh's Sanhani clan. Senior politicians resigned and formed the centrist Justice and Development bloc. Key Sanhani military commanders, including the formidable Ali Muhsin Saleh, sided with the people, as did the leading family of al-Hashid (the most effective tribal confederation), potential rivals to Saleh's sons for the presidency.
The Gulf Co-operation Council, supported by the west, stepped up efforts to negotiate a solution, involving a phased transitional process and an amnesty for the president and his close circle. But Saleh refused to sign the plan.
A short and vicious conflict erupted between Hashidi tribesmen and Republican Guards commanded by Ahmed, the president's eldest son and heir apparent. Although a truce was called after a week's fighting, the Republican Guards' western training and weapons out-matched the Hashid tribesmen, much to the latter's surprise.
The political pressure on the president continued to mount, until an incendiary device exploded in the presidential mosque, killing seven people and grievously wounding Saleh and senior officials. Most were evacuated to Saudi Arabia for treatment, and the tension dissipated as all anticipated a post-Saleh era.
The presidential family had other ideas. While the vice-president Abdo Rabu Mansur Hadi took over titular authority and continued to delay and dissemble, Ahmed Saleh and his cousins occupied the presidential palaces and dared all-comers.
The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP, the formal opposition), plus dissident former insiders and representatives of the people, all tried to negotiate various separate transitional plans, but to no avail. The JMP lacked popular credibility, the dissidents lacked adequate combat power, and the people lacked political coherence. However the regime's trump card was that only the president had the authority to sign a deal – and he was conveniently quarantined in his Saudi hospital bed.
By the end of June, Saleh's family were confident that they had consolidated their control: Hadi had not attempted to exert his constitutional position, the tribes were still licking their wounds, and the security forces were purged of any suspect loyalties or ambitions.
From his sickbed in Saudi Arabia, the president agreed to reopen negotiations over the GCC plan – with the aim of drawing out the transitional period – albeit only with the ineffectual opposition parties, not the people. While the regime engaged in its customary political intimidation, the charred president appeared on state TV, promising Yemenis that he would return.
The people, without a focus for their ire, bickered among themselves. Then, a day after the international contact group recognised the national transitional council on Libya, a pragmatic grouping from the Yemeni people unilaterally declared a 17-member transitional presidential council of their own, consisting of established politicians from across the political spectrum. Three days later, the staid JMP also said it was forming another anti-Saleh coalition – the national council.
The ruling GPC, which some had suggested might fracture under a forced transition, went on the offensive: the acting foreign minister, al-Qirbi, announced that the president would "transfer power anytime … through the ballot box and by adhering to the constitution". Not long afterwards, the GPC's programme was leaked: Hadi would become "head of Yemen", followed by two years "during which amendments to the constitution would be approved and the regime changed until new parliamentary elections are held".
The transitional period – stretching out to 2013 – is the time required for Ahmed Saleh to reach the age of 40: the constitutional minimum age to hold the presidency. The GPC insiders have clearly picked their jockey and intend to back him, come hell or high water.
Membership of the JMP's national council was announced on 17 August. It was an agglomeration of political blocs and elites: beside the entire transitional presidential council and the Justice and Development bloc, there were three senior Hashidi brothers, two major sheikhs from the Bakil tribal grouping, two senior members of the Awlaki tribe, Generals Ali Muhsin Salih and Ali Uliwa, and a plethora of other established political actors (although not the Zaydi revivalist Huthis). This body is as ineffectual as the JMP itself, because it lacks popular legitimacy and a common cause beyond ejecting the president – and almost as soon as it was formed an exodus started.
On 24 August, the injured prime minister, Ali Mujawar, returned from Saudi Arabia. The president proposes to follow him soon, to continue with the intended transfer of power to the next generation. While Saleh promised not to hand power to his eldest son, none of the next generation have promised not to stand for office. Few Yemenis expect the ruling family to return meekly into obscurity.
The wound that almost took Ali Abdullah Saleh's life probably saved his presidency. It bought him time by removing him from the pressures of the political arena, insulating his "constitutional legitimacy" from democratic challenge. In particular, it has protected his dynastic ambitions, set in motion over a decade ago, for his son to inherit the presidency of Yemen.
Whether he will succeed or whether traditional Yemeni meritocracy will triumph, depends on the steadfastness of the Yemeni people, and on the political elite discovering self-interested altruism.