Foreign Policy Blogs

Yemen: Direction Needed

Compared to other revolutions in the region, Yemen has so far proven to be the most restrained nation of all. Despite the deadly violence used by the government against its people, protesters have always refused to bear arms, choosing to meet the regime’s bullets bare-chested and defiant. But after weathering its bloodiest week yet, Yemen is in a state of shock.

Scenes of utter carnage were seen streaming through Suhail TV, a channel owned by Hameed al-Ahmar, one of the regime’s most virulent detractors and younger brother to Sheikh Sadeeq al-Ahmar, powerful tribal leader of the Hasheed confederation of tribes. Protesters with torn limbs, severed hands, bullets wounds and other horrors became the norm as Yemenis witnessed the massacre of the Youth in “Change Square”. Western Media decided not to make the images public as they were too graphic. Yemen’s nightmare was too horrid for foreign nations to even contemplate; only a diluted version of the events was allowed to trickle through.

But as the revolutionaries continued to answer the calls of the opposition for more protests, the regime continued to shoot them down, determined to put an end to the uprising. As crowds advanced in the streets of the capital, Sana’a, stationed soldiers were ordered to aim at unarmed protesters, backed by tanks and snipers upon rooftops. And because they kept coming, the regime unleashed its heavy artillery. For one straight week Sana’a went to sleep to the sound of shelling, for one week families prayed that the government’s bombs would spare their loved ones, for one week Sana’a was turned into a mourning hall.

Now that calm seems to have returned to the capital, what is the revolution to do? For 9 months now protesters have flooded the streets of the country filling the air with their chants: “Leave, leave.” For 9 months the regime has dodged the bullet, using different pretexts, always blaming others for their short-comings. And since peace has been met by violence and treacherous political negotiations, Yemen’s revolution stands motionless, looking for a new direction.

The Regime

Ever since President Saleh was forced to leave for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the regime used the excuse of a vacant presidency not to engage in negotiations with the opposition, claiming that they did not have the constitutional power to do so. Vice -president Hadi, who was subsequently nominated acting president in the absence of Saleh , also hid behind the Constitution, saying that although he had the power to dictate Yemeni government policies, he was merely reflecting president Saleh’s will, awaiting his instructions on the matter of the popular uprising.

This “lack of leadership” as some might call it, did not hinder the Republican Guards or the Central Security forces’ ability to crack down on protesters. But since both units are under the control of Saleh, constitutionality need not be an issue. So, as President Saleh was slowly recovering on Saudi soil, witnessing the growing dissensions within the melting pot of the opposition’s political parties, Yemen was descending further into chaos.

When the embattled president made his surprise return, many in Yemen, including the political class, hoped that it was to finally lend his signature to the much awaited and deliberated GCC proposal, thereby marking the end of Saleh’s era. Little did anyone expect the violence that ensued in his return. As he declared to the nation that he was coming bearing the “dove of peace”, Saleh unleashed his army upon hundreds of thousands of unarmed protesters, literally bleeding out the revolution. And despite the many promises and the regime’s reassurances that Saleh is committed to a peaceful power transfer, Yemen is still awaiting his signature.


The Political Class

Many analysts are arguing that it is Yemen’s politicians who have contributed the most to hindering the revolution’s success. Emboldened by the fall of President Mubarak in Egypt and President Ben Ali, many politicians opposed to the regime envisioned a quick victory in Yemen too. Wanting to reap the rewards of a new order, parties were quick to jump on board of the revolutionary train, hoping to generate the necessary popular support to access Yemen’s inner shrine, the presidential seat. Because if the youth has no other ambition but to oust the regime, politicians are very much interested in power. One would be foolish to believe that the political has anything to do with the ideological.
It is because the opposition was willing to negotiate Saleh’s departure that the revolution has taken so long. Forced into terms they were not prepared to agree to, the opposition has run out of options. Since the regime is unwilling to cooperate and that the creation of a shadow government, the National Yemeni Council for the Revolution, has not helped in changing the power dynamics, politicians are left contemplating a wall, hoping that foreign nations will manage to show the regime some sense.
So far all their attempts to breakdown the regime’s political defenses have failed miserably. No matter the number of people demonstrating in Yemen, no matter how impressive a sea of angry people looks, the regime is set on resisting people’s will.


The Tribes and General Mohsen

The tribes and the forces loyal to defected General Mohsen are now the only thing standing in between the regime forces and the revolutionaries. The world witnessed last week what Saleh’s regime is capable of, when it rained mortar shells on its people, burning and blowing up its way through the “Change Square” encampment.

With the General’s help, Yemenis buried over 130 people in less than a week, treating another estimated 1000. One can only imagine how things could have played out without the intervention of the 1st Mechanized Brigade.
In the Arhab and Naham districts, the tribes have battled the government for months, preventing more troops and military equipment to reach the capital, Sana’a. Now organized in a tribal army, several Sheikhs have decided that “peaceful” action is no longer an option. Since the regime is killing their loved ones, they declared that it was about time to retaliate.

And so they did. A few days ago, tribes loyal to Sheikh Sadeeq al-Ahmar overran a Republican Guard base, striking a blow to the elite unit’s reputation of greatness. However, if tribesmen are willing to stand up for the revolution, lending their weapons and courage to those who fight for democracy and freedom, many fear that a direct military confrontation would lead to a nationwide civil war, turning Yemen into another Somalia.

Caught in between a hammer and an anvil, Yemen’s revolution has been pulled in so many directions that it runs the risk of losing its head. Damn if they march, damn if they don’t; protesters are at a loss, looking for their next move. But what is one to do after 9 long months of stubborn defiance? Since peace has lead nowhere but to a circular negotiation table where the same terms are being discussed over and over again without approaching something concrete, and tribal elements are more interested in assuring their lasting hold over the country, the Youth Movement is at a crossroads.

Will there be peace or will there be war?



Catherine Shakdam
Catherine Shakdam

Although French by birth, my studies and my professional life led me to live for many years in the United Kingdom and in the Middle East.
Armed with a Master in Finance, a Bachelor degree in Psychology and 5 languages under my belt I managed to make my way through the maze of the Trading World of Wall Street, as an equity consultant. However, my interest for Politics and the Middle East gave me the necessary push to launch me as a "writer". Since then, I have voiced my opinions via my Blog and various publications such as the Middle East Post, the Guardian UK, and now Foreign Policy Association. I currently live in London.