Last week in Yemen, in the worst bloodshed since anti-government rallies began in January, attacks by government security forces against peaceful protesters devolved into armed clashes in the heart of the capital. Although the spasm of violence looked like the latest case of a brutal government suppressing demonstrators as part of the Arab Spring, it was propelled by an internal power struggle that had percolated for several years – and that took a complicated new twist with the surprise return of the country's wounded president on Friday.
A popular uprising has indeed gripped Yemen for months now, but the movement has been hijacked by three elite factions vying for control of the government. President Ali Abdullah Saleh's impromptu return may simply harden the battle lines, plunging the country into civil war. Since arriving in Sanaa, the president has continued to sidestep accelerating international demands for his immediate resignation and has accused his opponents of supporting al Qaeda.
Initially inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, students and other protesters began taking to the streets in cities across Yemen in January. They demanded greater democratic freedoms, an end to corruption and poverty, and the resignation of Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 33 years. They are the public faces of the movement – and they are also the primary victims of the violence the government has unleashed in response. State security forces and pro-government assailants have killed at least 225 protesters and bystanders during largely peaceful demonstrations, with dozens left dead in recent days alone.
Had influential governments such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia moved swiftly, they might have pressured Saleh to heed the protesters' calls. Instead, the international community dithered as Saleh feigned interest in a deal to step down from power. By June, when Saleh was badly wounded by an assassination attempt and fled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, the world's attention was already turning to uprisings in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere. Yemen's pro-democracy protests became overshadowed by a power play among the three top contenders to run the country: General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a renegade army commander who was once the president's confidant; Hamid al-Ahmar (no relation), a billionaire entrepreneur from the prominent Hashid tribe; and Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, who leads the elite Republican Guard.
General al-Ahmar and Hamid al-Ahmar threw their weight behind the protest movement early on: the general with his soldiers, and the businessman, by many media accounts, with his wallet. Yet it should be said that both men are entrenched in the very power structure that the protesters hope to uproot. Fending them off during the president's nearly four-month convalescence in Riyadh was Ahmed Saleh, whose Republican Guard has led many of the attacks on largely peaceful protesters. The onetime heir apparent to his father, Ahmed Saleh is an old rival of General al-Ahmar.
This internecine battle of the elites has not just displaced the grassroots coalition of young people and activists whose demonstrations first put pressure on Saleh; it has also sidelined Yemen's weak but functional political parties and parliament, as well as its resilient civil-society movement – all of which are potential building blocks for a new, democratic Yemen. And the infighting has further challenged central authority in a country where the writ of law already runs shallow and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has found safe haven.
General al-Ahmar, who is related by marriage to the president, helped Saleh win a 1994 civil war against southern Yemen before leading the government's brutal six-year war, which began a decade later, against the Huthis, a Shia rebel group in the north. It was during the latter campaign that he developed a rivalry with Ahmed Saleh, who was already eyeing the presidency.
According to a U.S. Embassy cable released by Wikileaks, Yemeni generals in 2009 told their Saudi counterparts who had joined the fight against the Huthis to bomb a site that turned out to be General al-Ahmar's base. But the Saudi pilots became suspicious and aborted the strike. (It is widely believed that the general, along with his rivals in the Ahmar clan, are clients of Saudi Arabia, which wields vast influence in Yemen.)
General al-Ahmar defected to the anti-Saleh movement with his powerful First Armored Division in March, after pro-government snipers fired on a peaceful protest in Sanaa, killing at least 49 people. The general said he left to protest the bloodbath, but critics viewed the move as opportunistic. Since then, his soldiers have ringed the demonstrators' camp at "Change Square" outside Sanaa university to protect the protesters from attacks by the Republican Guard and Central Security, a paramilitary force led by the president's nephew, General Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh.
For months, General al-Ahmar limited the role of his First Armored Division to protecting the protesters, but that changed September 18, when security forces again attacked demonstrators who, increasingly frustrated by months of political impasse, tried to march beyond their protected sit-in area. Witnesses said Central Security forces hosed the marchers with sewage, the marchers threw rocks in return, and security forces and snipers responded with gunfire. The attacks spawned street fights, and soon both the general's soldiers and the tribal fighters of the al-Ahmar clan were battling government forces, including Ahmed Saleh's Republican Guard.
Saleh was able to keep the rivalry with Hamid al-Ahmar in check until the 2007 death of Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, the clan's patriarch. Sheikh Abdullah was Yemen's paramount sheikh in a country where tribes are integral to the power structure; he also was speaker of Parliament and head of Islah, the largest opposition party. Islah espouses an Islamist ideology but includes an array of tribes, businessmen, and political moderates. Sheikh Abdullah developed a complex power-sharing arrangement with Saleh, brokering deals between the president and sheikhs within the Hashid confederation, of which the president's Sanhan tribe is a part. But the sheikh's ten sons had their own agendas.
Sadiq, the eldest, took over from his father as chief of the Hashid. Another son, Himyar, was a member of the ruling party and the deputy speaker of parliament. Hamid, a member of Islah who wears an ornate jambiya, the traditional Yemeni dagger, thrust into his belt, is a billionaire with interests in a cell phone network, Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, and media outlets. He has made no secret of his political ambitions.
In fact, Hamid al-Ahmar's dreams of unseating Saleh may have begun well before the Arab Spring. In a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks,] a U.S. Embassy official in Sanaa describes meeting Hamid in 2009 and hearing of his plan to organize mass protests to unseat Saleh, modeled after the 1998 uprisings that helped topple Indonesian President Suharto. "The idea is controlled chaos," the cable quoted Hamid as saying.
The first clashes between tribal fighters of the al-Ahmar clan and government forces erupted in May, after Saleh for a third time backed out of a deal to leave office. The accord, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and backed by the United States and the European Union, offered the president and his family immunity from prosecution in exchange for his resignation.
Saleh's forces then attacked the al-Ahmar clan's compound in Sanaa, setting off days of armed clashes. On June 3, an explosion inside the presidential palace gravely wounded Saleh, prompting his flight to Saudi Arabia. But he refused to relinquish power. His son Ahmed moved into the presidential palace, where he assumed de facto power until his father's surprise return.
Last week's violence erupted as international pressure was increasing on Saleh to sign an exit pact. On September 12, the president authorized his vice-president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, to negotiate a power transfer, a move that opponents immediately labeled a delay tactic, prompting their deadly march on September 18.
It remains impossible to say whether the latest clashes were provoked by one side or the other to scuttle those negotiations, or what Saleh's motives are for returning as the United States and European states have been stepping up their demands for his resignation. Saleh immediately called for a ceasefire and negotiations, but fighting has continued and he has backpedaled on his words many times this year.
What is clear at this is that the civilian population is bearing the brunt even beyond the bloodshed. Food, water, and power have become increasingly scarce since the protests began. As a report released this month from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights put it, some elements among those "seeking to achieve or retain power" are tying to "collectively punish" Yemen's civilians.
More than 100,000 people have been internally displaced in a patchwork of conflicts outside the capital. In the highland city of Taizz and in Arhab, where some have sought shelter in caves, tribal fighters of local sheikhs have been clashing since May with the Republican Guard. In the south, since March, military units have been fighting Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), a group backed by foreign fighters and perhaps linked to al Qaeda.
There is no quick fix to Yemen's crisis. But events of the last week suggest that only firm and sustained international attention, coupled with the prospect of targeted sanctions, will persuade the country's warring factions to swap arms for dialogue and to include the street protesters in the talks.
To that end, the United States, the European Union, and Gulf states including Saudi Arabia should freeze the foreign assets of President Saleh and his top security officials and officially suspend all security assistance until the authorities stop attacks on protesters and start bringing those responsible to justice. They also should press Yemen to stop resisting the presence of UN human rights monitors. At the same time, the UN Security Council should make it clear to all clashing factions in Yemen that it will not tolerate disregard for restraint. And would-be dealmakers, including Saudi Arabia, should pull any immunity offer for international crimes off the table.
If Washington, Riyadh, and other key players do not move swiftly, Yemen could be headed down the path of Somalia, a failed state just across the Gulf of Aden where armed Islamist militants have imposed draconian rule across vast swaths of territory, and famine and fighting have ravaged the population. In that scenario, last week's mayhem could be just a taste of the killing and suffering to come.
Letta Tayler is the Yemen and Counterterrorism Researcher at Human Rights Watch