Yemen has settled into a tenuous political, military, and diplomatic stalemate since the March 18 shooting in Sanaa by pro-government forces that killed over fifty protestors. President Ali Abdullah Saleh suffered defections from key tribal leaders, party loyalists, generals, and regional allies, just as key leaders of the main parliamentary opposition group (Joint Meeting Party, or JMP) announced they would side with protestors in the street. This has created a tense standoff in the capital and other major cities, with loyal and mutinous military units squaring off and occasionally opening fire on each other. At the same time, violence against street demonstrators has continued across the country. Most notably, at least 15 protestors were killed in Taiz by security forces on April 4.
Despite these challenges to Saleh’s regime—the starkest of his 32-year reign—the president shows little inclination to step down. As BPC’s report, Fragility and Extremism in Yemen (2011), makes clear, there are several deep-seated factors underpinning Saleh’s confidence.
First, he has ruled so long precisely by ensuring no single tribal or other political force becomes sufficiently independent or ambitious to overpower the constellation of loyal sheikhs and security services he has painstakingly assembled and maintained over the decades. While there are simply too many tribes, political actors, and people in general—and too few resources—to cow or appease every potential wellspring of discontent, Saleh usually has maintained a favorable balance of power among the country’s disparate factions by spreading the spoils of government through major tribes, the ruling party (General People’s Congress, or GPC), and the civil service, and setting these groups against the rest of the population. In this patronage system, characterized by a fractious polity and tight competition over resources, negotiated truces have long been a staple of political life. Brinkmanship often precedes last-minute compromise, and the process is often underwritten by implicit threats of force. For someone whose entire reign could be summarized by the Russian proverb that “the situation is hopeless, but not yet desperate,” the current talk of a transitional government is alarming to Saleh but does not present him with a fundamentally new challenge.
Second, Saleh has established a strong grip over Yemen’s security sector. The state has never had a monopoly of force in a country where tribes have their own security institutions, mistrust of the government is widespread, and firearms are a part of daily life. Therefore, Saleh worries as least as much about protecting his regime as protecting the country. The strongest military units are designed to be the most loyal, with fidelity ensured through appointments based on tribal affiliations and a process generally referred to as “modernization from the rear,” whereby regime-defense forces are given the newest big-ticket equipment while their used weaponry is sent to front-line forces in the outlying governorates. The security chiefs are members of Saleh’s extended family, and the Republican Guard and other commands headed by his clansmen boast the newest armor, aircraft, and other materiel. At the same time, he has built parallel internal security agencies and paramilitary organizations with overlapping jurisdictions. In essence this creates a buyer’s market for security, with multiple services competing for Saleh’s favor. This system is designed specifically to withstand and contain defections and uprisings, although at the expense of conventional military effectiveness.
Finally, Saleh has bolstered his regime by calibrating the threats emanating from Yemen. In the 1970s-80s he raised the dangers of the rival Soviet-backed South Yemen just enough to convince the United States, Europe, and Arab monarchies to offer military and other foreign aid. In the wake of the USS Cole bombing in 2000, he depicted al-Qaeda as strong enough to require infusions of U.S. counterterrorism aid and weaponry, but not sustained U.S. intrusion. Last month he prophesied civil war if forced to step down precipitously. Whether portraying himself as a bedrock of anti-communism, an ally against terror, or a linchpin of regional security, playing on outside powers’ fears has been the most reliable instrument in his diplomatic toolkit. These tactics mirror the brinkmanship embedded in Yemeni tribal politics, and create situations where Saleh always seems to muddle through, despite the inherently unstable nature of lurching from one crisis to another.
There is no clear reason for him to believe these three pillars of statecraft are no longer sound, even if recent defections have undermined their integrity. Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the leader of Yemen’s strongest tribal confederation (Hashid) whose father was a close Saleh ally, publicly disowned the president in March. His brother Hamid is a prominent figure in the Islamist opposition party (Islah) within the JMP that has sought a negotiated exit for Saleh. But the two brothers apparently do not trust each other, and Sadiq does not wield as much authority over the Hashid as did his pro-Saleh father.
Nor does there appear to be coherence among the various opposition groups. Street protestors largely say they want democratic reforms, Saleh and his family purged from government and brought to justice, and dialogue with Houthi insurgents and southern secessionists. The politicians currently trying to negotiate a transition of power—many of whom are more conservative and Islamist than the street protestors—hem and haw on these issues and squabble with each other. Saleh exploits these differences by offering rhetorical support for a transitional government, thereby playing on the street protestors’ fears that the politicians have hijacked and watered down their bottom-up revolution. Moreover, many opposition leaders mistrust Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and other defecting commanders, both because of their close tribal linkages with Saleh and their conduct against secessionists and the Houthis.
Furthermore, military force is the ultima ratio—especially in Yemen—and Saleh still commands the most firepower. Amid the haggling over a new government, it is not surprising a military stalemate has developed across the country. This is the most precipitous shift in the country’s military balance since the 1994 civil war, and perhaps since the 1962-70 North Yemen Civil War, but the scales still tip in the regime’s favor. Of the country’s thirty-odd army brigades, commanders and some troops of around a dozen have defected or deserted. These forces have redeployed to major cities flooded with protestors (primarily Sanaa, Aden, Taiz, Hudaydah, and Ibb), occasionally skirmishing with Saleh’s security apparatus.
Nonetheless, the security forces have largely closed ranks. Most of the defecting units were infantry brigades, while Republican Guard, armored, and mechanized brigades have mainly remained loyal. The regime thus maintains a plurality of force in terms of manpower, tanks, motorized units, artillery, airpower, missiles, and special forces. In addition, there regime has well-armed tribes and paramilitary organizations on its payroll, and the president’s extended family still sits atop the most important military and internal security branches. Saleh is not Saddam Hussein, but his security forces’ configuration and capabilities are a smaller version of the battle-tested Iraqi military that invaded Kuwait and brutally and utterly suppressed its own people in 1990-91.
Finally, Saleh’s allies in Washington and Riyadh appear ready to abandon him, but so far this has not been a death knell for the regime. The Saudis want a more pliable replacement before the country disintegrates further, but they surely don’t want a wave of “people power” to sweep away every vestige of the current regime and set a dangerous precedent on the Arabian Peninsula. The United States wants him gone so the government can refocus some of its energy on combating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but it wants to avoid the wholesale purge of U.S.-backed loyalist counterterrorism forces demanded by most of the opposition. Against this background, Saleh shrewdly accepted the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) transition plan. Because this deal would grant his family immunity and allow him to stay on for the time being, he calculated correctly that it would be rejected promptly by the JMP. U.S. and Saudi aid has been cut or redirected, but Saleh has now positioned himself as the one beckoning his opponents to the negotiating table.
Unfortunately, his belief in his own strength may eventually prove his and Yemen’s undoing. He has danced around the JMP’s demands and tried to divide the political opposition, even though many of its leaders have vested interests in a negotiated solution and stable transition. Street protestors are increasingly agitated in the meantime, as are the tribesmen and troops joining them. Thus the obduracy which allowed Saleh to rule since 1978 is now leading him to fiddle while Yemen burns. Security forces and key tribes on the regime’s payroll have diverted their attention from AQAP-infested governorates to the political battle lines in Sanaa and other cities. The weak economy is tottering as unrest disrupts oil exports and food imports, and as the government borrows heavily from the Central Bank to maintain the patronage pipeline.
The United States faces a dilemma. Having quietly committed itself to a post-Saleh Yemen once his intransigence threatened to destabilize the country further, Washington must now hope for a prompt and peaceful transfer of power in the face of the many individual and systemic forces working against that exact scenario. The Saudis’ checkbook and historical connections afford them significant influence across much of Yemen’s political spectrum and economy, but the United States has relatively little traction outside Saleh’s extended family. U.S. leverage in a post-Saleh environment would therefore be limited as political parties, street protestor groups, tribal sheikhs, Houthis, secessionists, AQAP, Saudi Arabia, and loyalist elements—all of them well-armed—jockey for power. Yemen has bedeviled American policymakers for more than a decade, and the challenges today are incredibly complex. Because U.S. homeland, energy, and regional security interests are bound up with Yemen’s fate, the need for a coherent and focused policy is now more pressing than ever.
Ruhe is a co-author of the 2011 report, Fragility and Extremism in Yemen.