After a summer stalemate in Yemen, the sudden involvement of defected troops headed by a long-time confidante of the president turned dissident general – Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar – has prompted fears that the outcome of the so-far peaceful uprising may end up being determined by Yemen’s fractious armed forces.
The Sept. 23 return of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been recovering in Saudi Arabia from an assassination attempt three months earlier, has plunged the country into a deeper state of uncertainty and sharpened the differences between pro- and anti-government camps. His supporters feel more emboldened with him here, his opponents all the more determined to topple him.
A crackdown by security forces on a mass rally last Sunday set off a bout of fierce military confrontations in the capital between the Republican Guard – an elite force headed by President Saleh’s son Ahmed – and a division of General Mohsen’s renegade soldiers who have been guarding the city’s protest encampment, “Change Square,” since siding with the opposition back in March.
The two sides bombarded each other with mortars and machine guns, but it was the pro-democracy demonstrators who bore the brunt of the violence. Over a hundred protesters were killed in the space of five days, some by government troops using anti-aircraft guns. It’s the worst bloodshed seen in Yemen since anti-government rallies first broke out in January.
For almost two days, Yemen’s capital of Sanaa has returned to its normal self. Children set off fire crackers in the dusty streets, souks heave with men haggling over bags of qat leaves, the stimulant chewed like tobacco for several hours a day. The city has eagerly welcomed the respite from a tumultuous, and perhaps decisive, week of bloodshed.
But the city remains a tinderbox of sand-bagged buildings and myriad checkpoints manned by wary soldiers. Yemenis are muddling on without a political solution that would ease flaring tensions, which risk pushing the country into civil war. Of particular concern is the entry of Mohsen’s troops into the fray.
‘Without them, we’d be slaughtered’
Since defecting in March, Mohsen – who is rarely referred to by his last name of Ahmar to avoid confusion with a powerful family here by the same name – and his troops have largely operated behind the scenes. Eager to appear as protectors and not protesters, they confined themselves to setting up and manning sandbagged entrances to Change Square. But the events of the past week have shifted the dynamic.
Mohsen’s troops are now fully intermixed with the protesters; cruising through the camp in the back of armored vehicles, chewing qat in protester’s tents, even being treated alongside injured protesters in the nearby field hospital. Initial doubt over whether the renegade troops would aid their cause has largely been replaced by the prevailing attitude that they are the “heroes and vanguards” of the revolution.
“In an ideal world we wouldn’t need the firqa [Mohsen’s troops] but now it’s different, it’s clear to us now that without them we’d be slaughtered,” a young protester leader named Adel told the Monitor on Monday. The fear remains though that their increasingly active role may help justify an even tougher crackdown by the regime on the basis they are fighting armed groups and not civilian demonstrators.
Settling old scores
It is unlikely that revolutionary fervor was the only thing that drove Mohsen to jump ship. By joining the opposition movement, Mohsen and other defectors from the regime are not so much heralding a new era for the Yemeni people as settling old scores.
For decades, Mohsen served as the regime’s iron fist, helping Saleh win a bloody civil war in 1994 against southern Yemen before crushing a series of rebellions by the Houthis, a rebellious Shiite-offshoot group in the north, in a campaign that displaced millions. Relations between the two took a turn for the worse a few years back when Mohsen became convinced that Saleh was secretly grooming his son Ahmed, also an army general, for the presidency.
A classified US embassy cable released by Wikileaks revealed how the Yemeni military told their Saudi counterparts to bomb a site in the northern region of Saada that turned out to be Mohsen’s base. The extraordinary plot was foiled when the Saudi pilots, sensing something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis, aborted the air strike.
Since Saleh’s return, Mohsen has shown no sign of softening his stance. Last week the wayward general lashed out at Saleh in a statement calling him a “sick, vengeful soul” and comparing him to the Roman emperor Nero, fiddling as his city burns.
Another fear surrounding Saleh’s sudden reappearance is that it may end up drawing Yemen’s powerful tribal leaders back into fray. When Saleh was airlifted to Saudi Arabia in June, Sadeq Al-Ahmar, the grizzled-bearded sheikh heading Yemen’s most influential tribe, the Hashid, swore “by God that he would never let Saleh rule again.”
Like Mohsen, Sadeq, one of the wealthiest and most outspoken figures in the country, had been allied with Saleh until March when he announced his support for the “peaceful youth movement.” Sadeq’s brother Hamid, a billionaire and former Saleh ally, has fashioned himself as a potential successor to Saleh. And like Mohsen, Hamid loathes the prospect that Saleh’s son might become Yemen’s next leader.
But despite siding with the opposition, both Mohsen and the Ahmars are dependent and deeply entrenched in the power structure that the protesters are hoping to uproot. As a nephew of one of Yemen’s senior ministers described it: “They are like pieces of from the cake, you can’t take one out and see it separately from the rest. These men have built power bases and amassed fortunes by working through the system created by Saleh. They only decided they wanted out once they saw that the regime was falling.”
One of the reasons the political impasse in Yemen has been so protracted is because all three – Saleh, Mohsen, and the Ahmars – are locked in a struggle to get what they want and have been acting as spoilers at various points along the way.
The protesters stuck in the middle
As the world focuses on Yemen’s three-way power struggle, the grass-roots coalition of young people and activists whose demonstrations first put pressure on Saleh back in January is slowly being undermined.
Saleh, who for years has ruled Yemen by a divide-and-conquer strategy, painted a picture in his latest speech of the youth being used as cannon fodder by his power-hungry rivals.
“You [the youth] are only victims that were forced into wars and led to the front lines, while armed crews opened fire and killed security forces in the streets,” he said.
Saleh’s belittling of the youth roused anger and offense, especially among the hundreds of relatives whose loved ones have been killed and maimed over the past months. But there is an unspoken and steadily mounting fear among protesters that if they do not continue escalating their rallies, that those who started this thing may wind up getting nothing.
That is why there is so much animosity toward the deal proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council – a face-saving agreement drawn up by the Gulf monarchies that would see Saleh relinquish power in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The youth see it as an elitist political maneuver that cuts them out of the equation and lets Saleh and his entourage off the hook.
For months now the international community has watched Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab World, descend into civil strife. Anti-government demonstrations first sprang up here back in January accompanying those in Tunisia and Egypt. Three months later as NATO began dropping bombs on Libya to protect civilians, dozens in Yemen were being killed in government crackdowns.
For now Yemen is still seen as too dangerous a case to interfere in, primarily because it is believed to house one of the worlds most dangerous branches of Al-Qaeda. But as the death toll rises and instability spreads, the delicate dance of the West, with its tacit support for Saleh, is looking more and more untenable.