Dynamics of the Anti-Saleh Movement

The opposition movement that emerged in Yemen, motivated by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, is a complex amalgamation of various civil society groups and elites from the tribal, political and military communities. While the uprising began as a peaceful movement led by civil society entities pursuing political reform, the current situation has been co-opted by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a collection of opposition parties that formed in 2002 to challenge Saleh’s General Peoples Congress (GPC); powerful elites including Sheikh Hashid Al-Ahmar, an al-Islah member and brother of Sheikh Sadeq Al- Ahmar, current leader of the Hashid Tribal Confederation, the most powerful tribal unit in Yemen; military defectors such as First Armored Division Army Commander Ali Mohsen al- Ahmar as well as the Islamist figure Abdul Majid al -Zindani. The myriad interests and groups involved has amplified that lack of cohesion amongst the opposition. Thus far the underlying goal that unites the opposition is the ouster of President Saleh and his kin from power.

In addition to the fractured opposition movement, there are three important entities that play a significant role in Yemen’s future, including Al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP; affiliated Ansar al-Sharia), the Shi’a Al- Houthi movement in the North and the Southern Movement championed by Al- Hiraak al- Janoubi. The political future of Yemen is at the mercy of both sectarian concerns and the ever-present North-South division. These groups will be discussed at length in subsequent posts.

Protests in Yemen began on January 27th, 2011 in Sana’a, as anti-Saleh demonstrators began to take to the streets. What is now labeled the “youth” movement consists of various civil society groups whom are in large part separated from the political and tribal patronage system that has gripped Yemen during Saleh’s rule. They are young and old and in pursuit of ousting President Ali Abdullah Saleh as well as reforming the aforementioned political system. After months of protesting in Sana’a, Taiz, Aden  etc. the disparate opposition merged under the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC), becoming the voice of this particular segment of the movement and put forth a declaration with demands in April of 2011.

On March 18th, 52 people were killed during peaceful protests in Sanaa’s Change Square by pro- Saleh snipers positioned on rooftops. As a result of the excessive use of force, a number of political and military elites defected from Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and put their support behind the CCYRC protestors. The game-changer came with the defection of Ali Mohsen Al- Ahmar, an Army Commander in charge of the First Armored Division and the Northwest Military Zone under Saleh. His defection empowered the opposition, yet also put in motion a hijacking of the protest movement by tribal and military elites.

What exists now is a complex web of interests with the opposition political party JMP, which consists of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform aka al-Islah, the dominant force within the umbrella group and the Yemeni Socialist Party, the main political party of South Yemen prior to unification in 1990, along with Nasserites, al- Haq (the political wing of the al Houthis movement) etc. acting as the public face for transition talks. JMP along with Ali Mohsen and other military defectors formed the National Council for the Peaceful Revolution Forces, which is ultimately an attempt at demonstrating cohesion among the opposition yet is dominated by the same voices that operated within Saleh’s patronage system. The youth movement is at present overwhelmed by the process, perhaps an inevitable consequence as successfully ousting Saleh, a man that maintained a grip on power for decades, is a formidable task that requires the support of elites from the existing power structure. Nonetheless, they continue to protest despite the continued use of force by Saleh loyalists. Perhaps the only individual receiving ample attention who is associated with the youth reform movement is that of recent Nobel Peace Prize winning activist Tawakkol Karman. She’s become the face of the revolution as envisioned by the CCYRC, calling for accountability and political reforms.The fractured opposition illustrated their lack of unity in July when two transitional councils were formed, one by members of the youth movement and the other by the JMP. The GCC Initiative put forth for signature, which Saleh has refused to sign in the eleventh hour on 3 occasions was originally a point of contention with the established political opposition and the youth movement. Their main issue with the initiative remains the immunity that is provided to Saleh and his kin, which they see as a denial of justice.

Analysis of Current Situation:

From the outset, the JMP’s loose association of different political parties with often times competing interests could be seen by their overall reluctance to demand Saleh’s removal. They assisted in organizing rallies against Saleh’s proposed amending of the constitution that would have enabled him to seek reelection and potentially become President for life, yet were inconsistent depending on the individual and the party when it came to supporting the youth movement’s call for Saleh’s removal. In first couple months of protest, some within the JMP called for Saleh’s departure though the official party line left the possibility open for dialogue about procedural reform. They claimed that they are concerned with how the country is run and not who is running it, yet their tune changed after the mass defections in March. They continue to operate with a level of ambiguity about what exactly they want from a transition deal as some speculate that they may be working an alternative plan that is not representative of the other elements in the opposition. Ultimately, the real determiners for whether a deal can be met rest with Saleh, the al-Ahmars, and Ali Mohsen.

In the search for a formidable opposition leader, much of the external analysis has focused on Ali Mohsen, the military defector and Hamid Al-Ahmar, of the Hashid Tribal Confederation and al-Islah party as potential leaders to come out of the transition efforts. The entire Ahmar Clan is being closely examined, yet Hamid seems to be the natural politician of the group and the one that seems most likely to remain in the political arena. Their involvement formed a backbone for the protestors, as Mohsen continues to command those from the First Armored Division that defected along with him and Hamid has support of armed men loyal to the Al-Ahmars. It is clear that a level of distrust about their intentions exists within the reform movement.

In addition, Saleh has been adamant about not allowing for either of these individuals as well as the other Ahmar brothers to hold positions of power if he were to step down. This continues to be a major roadblock to transition. These are the real power brokers in the opposition movement and despite Saleh’s own Sanhan tribe being a part of the Hashid Tribal Confederation, an acrimonious relationship between the Saleh’s and the Al-Ahmars has come to a head within the context of this uprising. After Sadeq, the leader of Hashid, declared his support for the protest movement, Saleh ordered for his arrest along with his brothers, which began a round of intense fighting between forces loyal to Saleh and those to the al- Ahmars. Saleh’s failed assassination attempt in June that forced the President to leave the country to receive medical assistance in Riyadh was blamed on the Al-Ahmars and Ali Mohsen. Recently, Ali Mohsen and the First Armored claims to have thwarted an assassination attempt against the Commander, which was allegedly perpetrated by Saleh’s Republican Guard.

I think the possibility of Saleh stepping down under the auspices of the GCC framework are minimal due to the following factors. First off, he continues to exert significant control over the security apparatus with his son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh in charge of the Republican Guard Units and the Special Forces and his nephew Yahya Muhamed Abdullah Saleh in control of Yemen’s Central Security Forces. They maintain a formidable posture in the major cities of Yemen, which is enough to keep him in power for the time being. In addition, despite the leaders of the two major tribal groupings, the Hashid and Bakil Confederations putting their support behind the opposition movement, they are fluid, highly decentralized entities that have internal rifts of their own. Some tribes and factions within remain supportive of Saleh, perhaps due to continued payoffs under the existing patronage system. This is where the international community must do more and that will be discussed at length in a subsequent post. In addition, the animosity felt by Saleh for Ali Mohsen and the Al- Ahmars seems to be highly personal. These individuals are major players in the power mix and Saleh is thus far unwilling to accept this.

Saleh has a historical rivalry with the al Ahmars and is miffed by Mohsen’s defection and military engagement against his forces in Sanaa and Taiz. He also blames the assassination attempt against him on the Al-Ahmars and Mohsen, which considering the extent of his injuries, may be driving a need for revenge. The continued excessive use of force against protestors, which have left hundreds dead and the alleged assassination attempt of Ali-Mohsen as well as Saleh’s efforts at requesting a fatwa from religious clerics in order to justify these measures signify that Saleh is keen on salvaging his hold on power and has no intentions of exiting any time soon, despite claims to the contrary.

Saleh perceives the inclusion of the Al- Ahmars and Ali Mohsen in any power transfer deal as giving into a “coup”. The al Ahmar’s, particularly Hamid, have invested a lot of money and effort into supporting the grassroots movement and are positioning themselves to play a significant role in the transition and post-Saleh Yemen. Ali Mohsen is another that is not acting as protector of the protestors out of the goodness of his heart. Whether his ambitions are political or not remains to be seen but I imagine he wants to solidify himself as a leader in whatever military structure emerges in post- Saleh Yemen. Therefore, with these individuals unwilling to remove themselves from the process, and Saleh unwilling to accept their involvement coupled with neither sides ability to exert overwhelming military power on the other; until the international community decides to place more pressure on Saleh and his ability to co-opt support, the political stalemate will continue.

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