In Yemen, civil war comes to Saleh's door

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose compound was attacked today, appears unable to shut down the unprecedented challenge to his 32-year rule.

Antigovernment protesters attend a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the city of Ibb, on June 3. Yemenis fled the capital on Wednesday to escape gunbattles between loyalists and opponents of President Saleh, who said he would make no more concessions to those seeking his ouster.
Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/File
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh is seen during a rally of his supporters in Sanaa in this April 1 file photo.

Yemen slipped closer to a full-blown civil war today as opposition tribesmen attacked the compound of President Ali Abdullah Saleh for the first time. While the president appears to have narrowly escaped serious injury, the escalating fighting represents an unprecedented challenge to his 32-year rule.

Mr. Saleh has long faced down opposition to his rule from disparate groups, spending vast amounts of blood and treasure to placate tribal leaders, northern rebels, and southern secessionists. But now Saleh's diverse rivals have coalesced around the nonviolent youth protest movement inspired by Egypt, presenting a more unified challenge to his grip on power.

"We are all one in demanding that Saleh leave power," says Nuha Jamal, a youth activist in the southern port city of Aden. "All of Yemen is united in this cause.”

How Saleh courted tribal leaders

Saleh's fragile hold over the country first began breaking down when hundreds of student protesters took to the streets minutes after the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “After Mubarak, it's Ali,” they chanted, until riot police stormed the relatively small crowd and broke up the march.

Since that day, Saleh’s hold over Yemen has been crumbling. Now, his forces are fighting one of Yemen’s most prestigious tribal confederations in a gang-style street war in the capital, which has been shaken by artillery barrages and pitched battles for more than 10 days.

Saleh, learning from centuries of Ottoman failures, knew from the outset of his reign that any attempt to subjugate the tribes would end in disaster. After all, it was Yemen’s most beloved and powerful tribal figure, the late Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who led the parliamentary vote that made Saleh president of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1978.

From that day, he made allies of northern Yemen's two most powerful tribal confederations, the Hashid confederation of which his own Sanhan tribe is a part, and the Bakil confederation.

Saleh has not held onto power solely through brute force and terror but through the patronage of tribal leaders – giving them money and political positions in exchange for loyalty.

But Saleh's hold over the tribes has completely disintegrated since the youth uprising began. Sheikh Hamid-al-Ahmar – an opposition politician, millionaire businessman, and son of Abdullah al-Ahmar – immediately expressed his support for the revolution and joined those calling for an end to Saleh’s rule.

In March, his eldest brother – Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the titular head of the Hashid confederation – voiced his support for the youth revolution as well. Two other brothers also defected that month: Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar, who was a member of Saleh's ruling party, and Himywar al-Ahmar, deputy speaker of parliament.

Now the Ahmar family is leading battles against government military units, resulting in the worst fighting seen in the capital since the 1960s.

Saleh's disparate opponents

Saleh’s rule over the unified Republic of Yemen has been troubled since 1994, when a civil war broke out just four years after he unified North Yemen with the socialist south. While Saleh's forces prevailed in that war, the southern secessionist movement gained strength over the following decade.

Saleh has quelled the movement, with some success, through brutal crackdowns on protests.

Similarly, Saleh has used the full force of his military against Houthi rebels in the north of the country, who feel marginalized by the Saleh regime and who subscribe to a strain of Shiite Islam that they see as threatened by Yemen's alliance with Sunni Saudi Arabia. Since fighting first broke out in June 2004, Saleh's forces have fought an on-again, off-again war with Houthi rebels. The rebels were led by former member of parliament Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who was killed in a suspected Al Qaeda attack in November 2010.

However, Yemen’s protest movement, spearheaded by students, seems to be uniting these disparate groups.

“We don’t need to secede from the north once Saleh is gone. Our problems in the south stem from a corrupt government,” says Ms. Jamal, the youth activist in Aden, which was the former capital of South Yemen. “People are leaving the Southern Movement.”

Similarly, members of the Houthi rebellion have taken up residence at Change Square, Sanaa’s protest camp in front of Sanaa University.

“Our vision is clear and we share this vision with all of Yemen. We call for a civil state and equal citizenship for all Yemenis. We demand true democracy,” says Houthi leader Ali al-Emad from his tent in Change Square.

In post-Saleh era, a federal system of government?

Yemen now appears to be quickly slipping into a full-blown civil war, presenting an impending humanitarian disaster for its citizens and a major challenge for US foreign policy. Saleh has been a willing if wily ally of US counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, which is home to an Al Qaeda branch now seen by some in Washington as more threatening that the remnants of Osama bin Laden's organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As Yemen moves forward, bringing its disparate groups into a government with proper representation will be a daunting task..

Some have suggested a system of asymmetric federalism, similar to the Indian model, with different states granted different powers under a single constitution. In such a system, regions would be granted a level autonomy that is seen fit for the population.

However, the top priority for Yemen now is to transition into a post-Saleh era, says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist based at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“[A federal system] may be the best path eventually but Yemen is a long way from that," says Mr. Johnsen, reached by e-mail in Cairo. "The first step is moving away from President Saleh's rule and to do that Yemen will eventually need to set up some sort of representative transitional council.”

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