Last Sunday I was involved in a panel discussion on the Al-Hurra satellite station regarding Yemen, one in which I was invited to discuss the policies of the United States. The other panelists were all Yemenis, including opposition and government figures. The conversation illustrated a great deal about how far down the road to chaos and confusion that country has drifted.
The main topic was about news reports that al-Qaeda had overrun the coastal city Zinjibar. Both government and opposition figures denied this, insisting that these were jihadist forces of a different variety led by a veteran named Khaled Abdel Nabbi. Al-Qaeda is unlikely to align itself with someone whose very name – Abdel Nabbi (“slave of the prophet”) – they would consider a serious blasphemy.
The self-contradictory and self-defeating exchange of accusations between the Yemenis on the panel was very striking. Predictably, the opposition figures said Abdel Nabbi was closely aligned with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and acting on his behest. The pro-government spokesman claimed that, on the contrary, “everybody knows” that Abdel Nabbi is in the service of rebel general Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, and has been for years.
Both the opposition figures and I noted that this accusation was effectively a self-indictment of the regime, since Ali Mohsen only recently defected. “If he was working with jihadists, why wasn’t he arrested?” asked one of the opposition figures. What nobody noticed is that flipping the question on the government is also, in effect, a self-indictment by the opposition since accepting the proposition that Abdel Nabbi works for Ali Mohsen means that the government was complicit with these jihadists in the past and the opposition is now.
The panel, much like the power struggle between Yemeni elites in general, was reminiscent of two boxers flailing away but landing at least as many blows to themselves as to each other. It’s true that Saleh benefits in a way by “playing the al-Qaeda card” as the opposition puts it, since this underlines the threat of chaos as the alternative to his rule. On the other hand, the opposition also benefits since Saleh looks increasingly weak and out of control of his own country.
Today news reports suggest that the Yemeni Air Force bombed Zinjibar in an effort to retake the town, while security forces are said to have killed at least 20 protesters in another southern town, Taiz. So rather than any of this being an example of a calculated plot by one side or the other, it’s more likely that Yemen is simply slipping into total chaos and toward failed-state status.
Under any controlled circumstances, Saleh would easily have been able to prevent 200 fanatics from overrunning a regional capital. It’s possible he didn’t want to, as some opposition figures claim; but it’s also undeniable that military forces on all sides are concentrated in Sanaa, the scene of a power struggle within the elite that has effectively split the military.
Rebel commanders over the weekend issued “Military Communiqué Number One,” which in the contemporary Arab world usually means initiating a coup or mutiny. In addition to this power struggle, Yemen has faced the Houthi insurrection, the presence of al-Qaeda and other jihadist forces, popular protests that are also probably not under anyone’s complete control, a Somali refugee crisis, and the existence of an undereducated, under-employed and heavily-armed population. There are also simmering North-South tensions that could re-erupt into another major national conflict.
So it’s quicker and simpler to list the forces keeping Yemen together than the dizzying array driving it apart. There is no question that the primary problem is that Saleh is refusing to step down, when even many of his supporters realize that it’s past time for him to go. Reportedly he privately claims the issue is about the next generation: He doesn’t want his sons and nephews to step aside for their counterparts in the rival Al-Ahmar clan. But most observers must have concluded at this point that Saleh is simply incapable of voluntarily stepping aside.
Thus far in the “Arab Spring,” no autocrat has voluntarily resigned. In Tunisia and Egypt, the leaders were removed by the army. In Libya (and now perhaps Yemen) the army split and civil war ensued. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has thus far managed to hold on to military loyalty, and thus to power. The efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to get Saleh to be the first to voluntarily and peacefully step aside have proven a humiliating failure.
But opposition forces, especially within the elite and the military, are also hardly paragons of virtue and responsibility. As the television panel I was on concluded, while Saleh is certainly the core of the problem, both sides in the Yemeni elite power struggle are perfectly capable of inflicting damage on themselves, and on their country.
At this stage, Yemen looks poised for an extended period of conflict and chaos. And with so many centrifugal forces at work, the country may possibly even be heading toward disintegration.