Fighting erupted in Yemen’s capital today as President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned from a three-month absence in neighboring Saudi Arabia. His reappearance prompted speculation on the prospects for transition in the Arab world’s poorest state following eight months of pro-democracy protests against his 33-year rule.
“This is an ominous sign, returning at a time like this probably signals he intends to use violence to resolve this. This is dangerous,” said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a political analyst and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement.”His people will feel that they are in a stronger position and they will refuse to compromise. Basically this means the political process is dead in the water.”
The consensus among most observers appears to be that Saleh’s return will entrench the political stalemate and lead to an escalation of the violence.
“He may have come to the conclusion that after the last few confrontations, it’s possible to resolve this militarily,” said Sana’a-based analyst Abdulghani al Eryani.
Some fear that Saleh’s return will embolden hardliners within the ruling party, increasing the likelihood of civil war.
Saleh “returned to run the war and drive the country into an all-out civil war,” said Abdullah Obal, an opposition leader. “The cannons are now speaking. Gunfire is doing all the talking,” he said. “The opposition can’t meet in this atmosphere. The military people are the masters of the situation now.”
In Washington, the Obama administration urged Saleh “to initiate a full transfer of power and arrange for presidential elections to be held before the end of the year.”
“The Yemeni people have suffered enough and deserve a path toward a better future,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“Saleh’s return comes at the worst possible moment for the country,” said Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen, comparing his reappearance to pouring “gasoline on a raging fire.”
While the political transition has galvanized attention in Washington and San’a, the overwhelming challenges facing the country overshadow everything else, said Katherine Zimmerman, a Yemen analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. “Any stability gained by a transfer of power would be ephemeral at best,” she said.
The president’s return “would seem to sound the death knell for the exit plan and the start of a bid to consolidate his ruling party’s power base, which crumbled in his absence,” writes Hakim Almasmari, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Yemen Post. “He immediately called for dialogue with the opposition – hardly the sort of thing a man on his way out of the door would pause to do.”
But a Sana’a-based democracy assistance official has a slightly more optimistic take:
While the youth-led movement may be anticipating additional confrontations, it is highly unlikely that Saleh will allow further attacks on unarmed demonstrators so quickly after his arrival. Should his return conveniently coincide with an end to or a significant reduction in violence, he may find some breathing room under the burden of mounting internal and international pressure to step down.
Other analysts believe Saudi Arabia would not have allowed Saleh return unless a negotiated transfer was likely.
“I’m sure he talked of his return with [Saudi Arabia's] King Abdullah during their meeting [on Monday night),” said analyst Ghanem Nuseibeh. “The Saudis would want that if he goes, then any transition of power is in their interests and doesn’t bring about an anti-Saudi government. If there wasn’t anything for them they wouldn’t have let him go.”
Saleh’s return appears to confirm suggestions that Yemen’s pro-democracy forces have gone from protagonists to ‘pawns’, as militarized actors come to the fore. But prospects for a transition will hinge in large part on the resilience of the youth-led civil society groups, which have gone through a process of political maturation and consolidation.
Up to 300 youth groups have now gathered into four major clusters, writes Abubakr al-Shamahi:
• The Supreme Co-ordination: a group that includes many of the Islah party’s youth wing, along with many independent activists.
• The CCYRC: a group independent from the opposition parties that includes many civil society activists and a larger liberal element.
• The Supreme Council for the Youth Revolution: led by human rights activist and the leading face of the Yemeni protest movement, Tawakkol Karman* (above), it includes a number of people associated with the opposition parties, but also many civil society activists.
• The Resilient Youth: encompasses the Houthis and many Zaydi Shia youth.
These activists have been the “driving force behind the months of protest,” he writes, “and its members will not accept another corrupt regime.”
* Tawakkol Karman is head of Women Journalists Without Chains, a media rights NGO supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.