By Brian O'Neill September 29, 2011
The Yemen revolution, born in the flush of Arab spring optimism, has descended into a body-strewn battleground pitting three sides that are entirely divorced from the hopes and fears of the protestors on the streets. Increasingly, the voices calling for freedom, democracy and an end to corruption and nepotism have been overshadowed and overtaken by powerful factions vying to maintain the status quo, with the only likely change being a different face on the ubiquitous Arab iconography.
Before we get into these factions, it is important to remember how we got here. Even prior to the Arab spring, Yemen had been boiling with three separate revolutions — the southern movement, the Huthi rebellion and the pervasive menace of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Only the first of these could be described as a democratic revolution, but even that was threatening to fundamentally reshape the geography and territorial integrity of Yemen as it shifted — largely in reaction to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's brutal suppression tactics — into a full secession movement.
Then came the thrilling cascade of toppled tyrants in the Arab world, led by Tunisia and Egypt. Yemenis joined in, forcing the government to alternate between crackdowns and time-buying face-saving gestures, none of which fooled the people on the streets. But the movement was not successful in toppling Saleh, who, while popularly delegitimized, still controlled the loyalty of important factions — and a not insubstantial percentage of the citizenry.
These factions are driven by family, tribal and institutional ties, and it is these ties that are now driving the violence. One faction is led by Ahmad bin Ali Abdullah Saleh (referred to as Ahmad to avoid confusion), the son of the president, trying to maintain the regime in the absence of his wounded and exiled father. Ahmad seeks to preserve the cohesion of the GPC, the leading political party, and controls the Revolutionary Guard. In addition, President Saleh's nephew runs the counter-terrorism unit, an elite force of approximately 20,000, whose definition of "terrorist" is broad enough to include anyone opposed to the regime.
The second faction is that of Hamid Al-Ahmar, one of Yemen's richest men and one of the heads of the Hashids, the largest tribal federation. Al-Ahmar commands many loyal tribal fighters, many of whom have always chafed at the control coming from Sanaa. He has long had his eye on the presidency and even before the revolution had openly split from Saleh.
The third faction is comprised of soldiers loyal to Ali Muhsin Al-Ahmar (no real relation, and referred to as Ali Muhsin). Ali Muhsin has long been Saleh's top general, but defected to the opposition in March. It is not widely believed the defection came from a deep love of democracy, but rather from spotting an opening to take the presidency for himself.
What you have is three hugely ambitious men, none of whom are averse to violence, using the honest aspirations of protestors as cover for their own goals. There are three related problems here. The first is that it is unlikely any of them can score a decisive victory. It is unknown how much loyalty they command, but it is fair to say at this point that no one has overwhelming strength. Even if one does triumph quickly, none of the three are popular. Ahmad is hated, a spoiled and violent scion of an unpopular president. Hamid is not terribly trusted — a billionaire in a land of immense poverty. And Ali Muhsin has a justified reputation as a cruel and blood-thirsty general. It is the author's opinion that Saleh gave Ali Muhsin difficult assignments to undercut his popularity and take the legs out of a competing power center.
The third and probably greatest difficulty is that these men are competing over Sanaa, and the capital doesn't carry much weight outside its own bounds. There are protests in all the major cities, many of which might be more important economically than Sanaa. Whoever takes over, assuming someone can do so, will have a restive capital and a burning country. They will have to contend with an emboldened Huthi population that has used the distraction to gain more autonomy, and a southern population that will be unlikely to accept any of the three men.
The West, particularly the United States, is still far more concerned with battling Al-Qaeda than it is with aiding a transition. The US wants a transition, and has cut off Saleh, but still thinks the regime is the best bet for defeating AQAP. This may be correct in the short-term, but it is a blinkered, parochial and narrow-minded view of the situation. The West needs to work with the protestors and stop mouthing democratic slogans, instead of empowering a military complicit in the murder of civilians and the perpetuation of the status quo. Even if AQAP is all the West cares about, it isn't going to be defeated by supporting the creators of discontent.
In a way, though, the US perspective is partially understandable. It is doing the only thing it feels it can do. The situation in Yemen is fluid and blood-colored, and the chances for a decent outcome are waning by the hour. This is a desperate battle over the last slice of an increasingly stale and desiccated pie, and the tragedy is that the people who most deserve it are the ones least likely to get a piece.
Brian O'Neill is an independent analyst specializing in Yemen and security issues in the Horn of Africa. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org