At least nine people were killed in renewed violence in Yemen today amid fears that pro-democracy demonstrators have been eclipsed by the armed factions of tribal warlords.
“Eight months after the first protesters began calling for revolution in Yemen, the beleaguered country has entered a new round of violence, in which street demonstrators appear to have become little more than sacrificial pawns in a long-term rivalry among members of Yemen’s political elite,” The New York Times reports.
At least 400 have been killed since the protest movement against current President Ali Abdullah Saleh began in January. Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdbullatif al-Zayani and United Nations envoy Jamal bin Omar flew into Sana’a this week in an attempt to revive a GCC-brokered transition pact, but left after two fruitless days of talks. Some believe a negotiated settlement is still feasible.
“There are some initiatives being discussed for a political solution under the supervision of Jamal bin Omar and we hope these efforts succeed,” a high-ranking opposition official said, while cautioning that “their failure will push this country into more violence.”
“Unless there is a deal, or unless there a breakthrough to a political solution…the country will continue to fall apart and violence will spread to other parts of the country,” bin Omar told Reuters. “It’s very urgent that Yemenis make up their mind and agree on a reasonable way forward.”
“The only way forward is a political solution, a political process that is inclusive,” Bin Omar said. “We want all the political factions and trends to participate so that we are not in a situation where there not only two sides. There are too many political actors and they will need to participate in this process.”
The pro-democracy civil society groups that initiated the protests appear to have been sidelined, as tribal factions engage in violent street battles.
“Unfortunately, part of this is a power struggle amongst armed elites that do not have the best interests of Yemen on their minds, but are doing this rather for personal and political gain,” said a Western diplomat in Sana’a. The escalation of violence has raised fears of civil war, a prospect dismissed by some protagonists.
“There will be no civil war,” a senior official involved in the talks. “What’s happening now is still under control and is meant to create good negotiations [positions] for some parties,” the official told Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee:
Independent protesters, however, say they have been squeezed out by artillery and tanks firing between the major players. “We have no room now in this war. Our revolution was peaceful before Hamid and Ali Muhsin kidnapped it,” said a leading independent protester Najib Abdul Rehman as he fled explosions near his tent in the sit-in square in Sanaa on September 19. “Our revolution will never succeed as along as these three big guys are still here. They all should leave.“
Yemen is on the brink of a civil war with significant geostrategic consequences, writes Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel, contributing to a Bitter Lemons International Forum.
The “significant populist movement” that demonstrated peacefully for political and economic reforms had legitimate grievances.
“Saleh’s record of deliberately keeping his country weak, underdeveloped, divided and without institutions is indicative of the type of leader he represents,” he argues.
But now that the initiative has passed into the hands of domestic warlords and regional power brokers, it is “crucial that Saudi Arabia arrive at a policy that brings some stability to Yemen before it is too late–which unfortunately might already be the case.”
Three principal factions are driving the violence, writes analyst Brian O’Neill: one led by the president’s son, Ahmad bin Ali Abdullah Saleh, allied with the GPC, the ruling party, the Revolutionary Guard and the elite counter-terrorism unit “whose definition of ‘terrorist’ is broad enough to include anyone opposed to the regime; Hamid al-Ahmar, one of the country’s richest men and a leader of the Hashids, the largest tribal federation; and a third faction comprised of soldiers loyal to Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (no relation, and referred to as Ali Muhsin), formerly Saleh’s top general.
“The West, particularly the United States, is still far more concerned with battling al-Qaeda than it is with aiding a transition,” he contends:
The West needs to work with the protestors and stop mouthing democratic slogans, instead of empowering a military complicit in the murder of civilians and the perpetuation of the status quo. Even if AQAP is all the West cares about, it isn’t going to be defeated by supporting the creators of discontent.
He’s referring to pro-democracy activists like Tawakul Karman:*
A 32-year-old mother of three, Karman is both a journalist and human rights activist active in the push for the right to free expression. A devout Muslim, Karman was inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and is now at the forefront of the effort to challenge Yemen’s authoritarian leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Beyond her work as a human rights activist, Karman supports alienated Yemeni youth, is a member of Yemen’s leading Islamic political party and hosts weekly sit-ins in support of political prisoners.
Failure to engage democratic forces and engineer a transition will squander the best opportunity for democracy on the Arabian Peninsula, some suggest.
“Surrounded by ancient monarchies and theocratic regimes, Yemen is the only nation within the Peninsula where democracy could really flourish,” The Yemen Post contends. ” The ground has already been laid since it is a Republic with a working Constitution.”Yemen has crossed the point of no return, writes Mohamed Qubaty, an opposition activist, former ambassador and senior advisor to the last two prime ministers:
The question is: a point of no return towards what destination? Is it towards the grip of anarchy as the usual history of Yemen entails, or has it crossed a threshold towards inclusive participatory politics? I am inclined to bet on the latter. However, the true answer can only be known over time.
* 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.