Sunday, June 5, 2011
Yemen at a crossroads?
The violence in Yemen over the past two weeks has spiked. According to the BBC, more than 350 people have been killed since the uprising started in January, but at least 135 of them have died in the past 10 days. What was at first youthful protesters and eventually larger masses of Yemenis in solidarity against Saleh's continued rule, has now morphed into a more ominous set of tribal factions choosing sides. Tribesman loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation have moved to the front of fighting, and the Yemeni army has been weakened by the defection of its first Division, led by Gen Ali Mohsen, to the opposition.
The focal point of Yemeni unrest originated over its longstanding leader of 32 years - President Saleh. Fed up with corruption and poverty, the Arab spring arrived in Yemen, as elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet in the past six months, Yemen has joined Libya with overtones of civil war (while Syria stands apart with straightforward ruthless government violence against general protesters and civilians caught up in "rebellious" cities).
In April, Saleh had listened to a plan of succession put forward by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, but rejected the plan to ease him out of power to quell the unrest. Increasingly isolated among Arab neighbors, Saleh again toyed with a new GCC proposal in mid May, including presumably some stronger guarantees of security against subsequently prosecuting him for previous actions, as well as some surety that his amassed wealth would not be taken away. This proposal got to the point where government officials from all sides had signed their good faith to the arrangements, and were waiting only for President Saleh to sign himself. Yet in the end, he did not.
The peaceful protest movement has all but become a sideshow, said one BBC reporter. Hundreds are fleeing the city, heading for their towns and villages, as armed tribesmen march towards Sanaa, Yemen's capital. Tents that line the streets around University Square - now dubbed "Change square" by protesters - are half empty. Fewer people are gathering, concerned by the growing violence. The tension is palpable.
While at Friday prayers two days ago, Saleh was injured in what was originally reported as a shelling of the Presidential mosque (the attack within the large Presidential palace grounds is itself an escalation of the conflict). Seven officials were killed and more injured. (Subsequent reports suggest it may have been a bomb planted inside the Presidential mosque. At first, reports were that Saleh received only superficial wounds, but yesterday, he abruptly flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, where today he underwent surgery.
His departure was greeted with joy by Yemeni opposition, and the question now is whether President Saleh's return will be allowed. Saleh had no intention of giving up power, but now being out of country and removed from his core of power, the possible future scenarios are multiplied.
Click on image for larger picture
Yemen itself is now in great chaos - tribal alliances are stark, the government forces divided with some defections, and the third major force remains radical Islamists, led by the American Sheikh Anwar al Awlaki, ready to take advantage of a possible power vacuum.
While the crowds enjoy the news of Saleh's departure, what does the future now hold?