Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Yemen's Multiple Power Struggles

Opposition groups staging protests aren't the only groups that want President Saleh to go.
By Mariann Markseth Omholt
  • President Saleh has been under pressure to resign since January. This picture shows a protest in Sanaa in February. (Photo: Magnus Mansk/WikiCommons)
    President Saleh has been under pressure to resign since January. This picture shows a protest in Sanaa in February. (Photo: Magnus Mansk/WikiCommons)

As thousands attend rallies in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, the country’s future direction remains hard to decipher.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, receiving treatment for injuries he received in an attack on his palace on June 3. His vice-president, Abd Rabbu Mansur al-Hadi, has taken over as acting head of state, and opposition activists who have staged protests since January held a rally on June 10 to demand an interim ruling council that would replace Saleh . Elsewhere in Sanaa, supporters of the president held their own rally after news that he was out of intensive care, but it is uncertain if and when he will return to the country.

“Nobody knows if this is the end of the revolution. Conflict may return”, Shatha al-Harazi, a reporter for the Yemen Times, told IWPR by phone. She said the two weeks before the attack on the president had been violent with at least 200 people killed and thousands displaced.

Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, sees two possible scenarios – “one is a transitional government of some kind with Saleh completely excluded, [the other] civil war with or without Saleh present in the country. A lot will depend on local actors and on what the Saudis and Americans do.”

Dr Charles Schmitz, head of the American Institute for Yemen Studies, said he believed it most likely that Saleh would sign a letter of resignation while still in Saudi Arabia, and call on vice-president Hadi to form a transitional administration.

“One suspects this will be a process that will break down and start up again several times, but eventually it will lead to elections,” he said. “The composition of this future government is difficult to predict. Yemen is really in a new political era, and political forces are shifting significantly through this transition.”

He added that the United States, with European and Saudi backing, were currently trying to broker a deal on a transitional government.

“They are trying to bring in as many different political actors as possible, and get them to agree to a transitional government that will meet later for elections,” Schmitz said.

Murad Batal al-Shishani, a London-based expert on Islamic groups and terrorism, is less optimistic that things will go smoothly. For a start, he predicts that Saleh will return to Yemen.

“Saudi Arabia wants calm and peaceful borders. Therefore, for diplomatic reasons they will let him return. This is likely to escalate conflict in Yemen,” he said.

Opposition to Saleh’s rule over recent months has taken the form of street protests reminiscent of those in Egypt and Tunisia, but the picture is much more complex than that.

The main formal opposition force behind the rallies is the Joint Meeting Parties, JMP, a coalition formed in 2002 out of a very diverse set of parties including the Yemeni Socialist Party and the large Islah party, with an Islamist agenda.

Beyond that are regional and tribal factions with vastly differing gripes and aims, but which have more or less aligned themselves with the JMP and the street protesters.

President Saleh and his family face a strong challenge from Sadeq al-Ahmar, chief of the Hashid tribal confederation, and his brothers. According to Schmitz, one of the Ahmar brothers, Hamid, harbours presidential ambitions, which places him in direct competition with Ahmed al-Saleh, the president’s eldest son.

“Ahmed Saleh and Hamid al-Ahmar are both very powerful, and they both want to become president. This can potentially disrupt the whole process,” Schmitz said. “The positive aspect is that they are both weakened. The Hashid tribal confederation has been weakened in the last five years; the Saleh brothers are weakened because their father has left.”

While the Ahmar and Saleh family groupings need to be “at the table” because of the backing they both enjoy in Yemen, Schmitz argues for a broader-based leadership structure.

“The ideal scenario includes a sufficient number of other different political forces in Yemen that can hold those two dominant tribal factions from trying to grab power,” he said. “Yemen needs a long transitional process at least until elections, where there is a possibility for other people can have a piece of the pie rather than these two sons.”

In addition, there are long-running armed insurrections in the north and south of Yemen. Both the Huthi rebels in the north and the Southern Movement have voiced support for the ongoing protest in Sanaa, but do not appear to be directly involved in it.

Then there is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, operating in Yemen as well as Saudi Arabia. The United States has expressed concern that the group will seek to exploit the ongoing stability, a view strengthened by clashes between Yemeni government troops and suspected AQAP guerrillas who have controlled the southern city of Zinjibar since the end of May.

AQAP undoubtedly has a significant presence in Yemen, though some analysts believe the Islamist threat has been exaggerated by President Saleh, the argument being that if he were to go, worse would follow.

“I tend to downplay al-Qaeda’s importance, largely because president Saleh has always used it as a way to extract concessions from the Saudis and the Americans,” Haykel said. “Although al-Qaeda presents a potential threat on the ground, this threat is also exaggerated and politicised by the regime for its own purposes.”

Despite the fighting in the south, AQAP does not appear to be part of the central struggle for power. Whether it gains ground in future depends on whether the political process moves forward, Shishani said.

“If young people manage to achieve peaceful democratic movement in Yemen, this will demonise al-Qaeda. If this attempt fails, it will be a good opportunity for al-Qaeda to grow stronger,” he said.

“Young people are the focal point of this revolution. They are the key to developing democratic structures in Yemen, and long-term, a stable and prosperous state. However, if young people in Yemen feel frustrated because of lack of support from western states and the persistence of civil war and tribal clashes, they are once again likely to be attracted to the rhetoric ideology of al-Qaeda, instead of peaceful democratic change.”

Mariann Markseth Omholt is an IWPR editorial intern in London.