Yemeni opposition cages in Saleh as violence prompts high-profile defections

As the president’s close allies declare open support for protesters demanding regime change, the balance of power in the capital has shifted

The growing number of defections from President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government has been a clear tipping point for those who silently sympathised with pro-reform youth protesters at Sanaa University, which has been the focus of demonstrations since January (GSN 893/5). Their silence ended after the massacre on Friday 18 March, in which 52 anti-regime protesters were shot dead.

Before this, observers had been speaking of an interim Republican Council proposal by a number of former and serving government officials, which was to be presented to Saleh as early as the first week of March. Some of those involved indicated that the council would pre-empt any attempt by leading opposition party Al-Islah and its conservative allies – the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood – to take over the government. But discussions changed between 18 and 21 March, with the defection of government members and officials, including tourism minister Nabil Al-Fakih, human rights minister Huda Al-Baan, Saba News Agency head Nasser Taha Mustapha and ambassadors in Jordan, Switzerland, Japan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, the US and at the United Nations. Observers suggest that Saleh dismissed the government on 20 March to avoid public embarrassment and strengthen core support.

Big-name defection

Most significant, however, were the actions of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armoured Division and the north-west military district, who on 21 March announced his support for the protesters, although he did not resign from the government. He is described as Saleh’s closest adviser and the second most powerful man in the country, with much wealth and good relations with the influential Salafi movement. He said his forces would protect peaceful demonstrators and that he recognised the need to move forward with reform and work against corruption.

However, a 2005 cable from former US ambassador to Yemen Thomas Krajeski, revealed by the WikiLeaks website, raised questions about Ali Mohsen’s character. According to Krajeski, he had acted as Saleh’s “iron first” for years, and was instrumental in crushing the northern Houthi rebellion. His defection, therefore, suggests a power play for control of the capital, rather than a genuine desire for reform.

Mohammed Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, commander of the eastern military section, and Hameed Al-Qushaibi, commander of the Amran region, and businessmen Abdul-Wasea Hail Saeed Anaam and Mohammed Abdo Saeed have also signalled their support for anti-regime protesters.

Escalation of events

Military personnel and heavy equipment began to move into Sanaa’s streets as early as the evening of 18 March after government elements attacked unarmed protesters, killing 52 people and seriously injuring hundreds of others. Clashes escalated, with the Central Security Forces, under the command of Saleh’s nephew Yahya Mohammed Saleh, and public security police failing to protect protesters or detain gangs burning tyres on the streets and attacking unarmed demonstrators with rocks and live ammunition. The attacks were similar to those in the week of 22 February, when hooligan (baltagiyya) elements and snipers – affiliated with individuals such as Hafedh Mayed (part of the security apparatus and former CAC Bank chairman) and Sanaa mayor Abdelrahman Al-Akwa – attacked protesters in Abyan province.

A number of other factors contributed to the rapid development of events between 18 and 21 March. These include Saudi Arabia’s offer to mediate a settlement between Saleh and the opposition, which was announced soon after the Saudi foreign ministry cancelled the Friends of Yemen (FoY) meetings in Riyadh on 22 and 23 March. This was followed by a phone call between UK foreign minister William Hague and Saudi foreign minister Saud Bin Faisal signalling to the West that Saudi Arabia would manage the Yemeni issue. Then there were rumours that Saudi military equipment was arriving through the port of Aden and border city of Haradh in the north. A tribal meeting called by Sheikh Sadeq Bin Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar on 19 March in Sanaa also signalled a potential tribal alliance challenge to Saleh.

By cancelling the FoY meeting, which US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said depended on Saleh’s participation, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have marginalised western governments. The UK government was unable to salvage the failed process that began in January 2010 in London, and only US ambassador Gerald M Feierstein has been able to maintain direct contact with Saleh, holding meetings at the presidential palace on 19 and 20 March, and with the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) opposition alliance (GSN 894/5). It was reported on 19 March that Feierstein had even held direct talks with some of the organising youth from Sanaa University, proposing an agreement on an interim government and plans for elections before the end of 2011. This followed a JMP statement that there was no room for negotiations after the massacre on 18 March.

The meeting called by Sadeq Al-Ahmar was presented by some media as a gathering of the Hashid confederation leaders, and there were reports that Saleh’s tribe had abandoned him. However, Saleh is from the Senhan, which is a member tribe of the Hashid. This meeting has to be interpreted as a collection of Al-Ahmar’s client tribal elements and a way of presenting to Saleh tribal elements potentially activated to support Al-Islah.

Recent activity by the JMP, led by Al-Islah, has not included its spiritual leader Abdelmajeed Al-Zindani, who is considered a terrorist by the US and now lives in his home village in Arhab. This could signal an internal struggle within the JMP marginalising more conservative elements.

Originally published in Issue 897 - 25 March 2011.

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