Ginny HillMar 23, 2011
The outcome of army and ministerial defections will reflect the internal politics of Yemen's patron, the House of Saud
Passion for change in the Arab world is spreading to Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh has dominated national life for more than three decades. More than 75% of the population was born after he came to power in 1978. He was once a skilful manipulator, but now the political tide has turned against him. His latest offer, to stand down at the end of the year, comes too late to appease either his political enemies or the Yemeni people. Saleh is on his way out. The only questions now are the timing and the manner of his departure.
The duration and nature of President Saleh's administration embody the country's fundamental problem: the lack of political legitimacy. Decades of patronage-based politics, designed to appease the military and tribes, have undermined the institutions of the state. One informal assessment of spending on the military – a behemoth of corruption and patronage – runs at four times the official outlay on public services.
As a result, Yemen's human development indicators run parallel with many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The economic crisis, faltering value of the currency and plummeting oil production are symptoms of graft, incompetence and mismanagement.
Protagonists involved in the three main national security challenges – the southern separatist movement, the northern rebellion and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – all frame their struggles in terms of social justice.
Until the start of this year many Yemenis were resigned to living with an unresponsive political system that seemed only to serve the interests of the elite. But the country's new pro-democracy movement is inspired by the regional groundswell of popular protest that is overturning so many assumptions about the Arab world.
Demonstrators have been camping out in the centre of the capital, Sana'a, for nearly two months, calling for freedom, democracy and justice. The latest press release from the civic coalition of revolutionary youth rejects "tyranny and the monopolisation of power and wealth".
However, as popular support for the revolution gathers momentum, long-standing competition within the ruling elite is coming into open view.
This week's decision by the army chief, Major-General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, to support the pro-democracy protestors triggered a wave of high-profile resignations from ministers, ambassadors and army commanders. Mohsen's defection came after years of growing tension with President Saleh, whose son and nephews command elite security and intelligence units that receive military aid and counter-terrorism training from the US administration.
Another competing faction within the elite also goes by the family name of "al-Ahmar" – which means "red" – although they are not related to the general. Until his death from cancer in 2007, the family patriarch, Sheikh Abdullah, was the main conduit for Saudi Arabia's influence in Yemen, distributing cash stipends to the tribes. His eldest son, Sadek, now leads Yemen's largest tribal confederation, the Hashid grouping. Sadek's brother Hameed, a telegenic business tycoon, is said to bankroll the grassroots activities of the Islamist opposition party, Islah.
Hameed and his brothers have declared their support for the people's revolution, and they stand poised to exploit the imminent power shift. An alliance between Mohsen and the al-Ahmar brothers looks increasingly likely in the weeks and months ahead.
Yemen's pro-democracy activists are alert to the risk that their popular revolution will be treated like a game of musical chairs where the key players within the existing regime simply swap positions. Demonstrators are promising to hold out for a peaceful transfer of power to a civilian authority, a new constitution that boosts the role of parliament and a federal system of government.
Saleh has imposed a state of emergency and appealed to the Saudi royal family to mediate a political solution to the current crisis, but there is a strong chance that Riyadh may decide to cut him loose. In recent years the Saudis have allegedly spent billions of dollars trying to help Saleh "stabilise" Yemen – and all the while their frustration has been mounting.
Riyadh has two clear priorities in Yemen: border security and a reliable partner in the campaign against al-Qaida there, which harbours several Saudi nationals on Riyadh's "most wanted" list of terrorist suspects.
In the short term the Saudis may be the only ones who can persuade Saleh to stand down swiftly and spare Yemen's citizens the trauma of civil war.
In the longer term Saudi support will be decisive in a patronage-based society that is rapidly running out of oil and cash. During a recent research trip to Riyadh, I asked an adviser to one senior prince if the Saudis would be willing to tolerate democracy in Yemen, in return for future financial support. "We don't care what they do, as long as it's stable," he replied.
However, Riyadh's ruling elite is also composed of competing factions, and Yemen's pro-democracy campaigners fear the political trade-offs that are likely to follow if more conservative elements within the House of Saud gain the upper hand in dealing with President Saleh's eventual successor.
Source: The Guardian