When will Yemen's night really end?
July 28, 2011, Le monde diplomatique
by Gabriele vom Bruck
Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh might be forgiven for refusing, on 22 May, to sign a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement obliging him to rescind power within a month. The date marked the twenty-first anniversary of the unification of his Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south — the highlight of his political career. However, this was the third time he failed to confront the inevitable, so failing to ease the dangerous impasse in the country he has ruled for over three decades. Yemen, as Amnesty International warns, is “on a knife-edge”.
Thus far, the country has been spared another devastating war, one potentially bloodier than those fought since unification in 1990. In the capital Sana, in spite of daily harassment, tear gas, beatings and killings by security forces, the protests have for the main part remained peaceful, even after the killing of over fifty protesters on 18 March. In the southern city of Taiz, where security forces destroyed protesters’ tents, killing dozens of them on 30 May, “Martyrs’ Square” — recently renamed “Freedom Square” — has again become testimony to the city’s martyrs. There are daily clashes in the southern provinces (in the former PDRY); five provinces in various parts of the country are no longer under government control. Since the attack on Saleh’s palace mosque on 3 June which compelled him to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, there has been a power sharing of sorts. Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi has become acting head of state, but Saleh’s eldest son Ahmad has moved into the palace and the government insists that Saleh will return and rule until the end of his term in office in 2013. Amid continuing deadly clashes in several areas and a looming humanitarian crisis, a political transition process is urgently needed.
The current crisis follows the trajectory of Saleh’s rule: the president is not known for seeking peaceful solutions to political crises. He has relied on “divide and rule” tactics to neutralise threats to his authority, and on a patronage system that permeates all sectors of government and society. The political elite exercises authority through extra-constitutional means and controls a substantial part of the business sector. The provision of public services to provinces has often been made dependent on political loyalty — a policy which has served to perpetuate historical grievances and antagonism. Even where obvious solutions were available to some of the country’s more entrenched problems, the political will was lacking. Yet western nations offered support to Saleh’s regime even as he lost legitimacy among his people. In the past months the regime, as well as western diplomacy, has been challenged in the streets of Yemen’s towns and cities. US foreign secretary Hillary Clinton’s statement on 2 June 2011 that “if it wasn’t obvious before it certainly should be now that [Saleh’s] presence remains a source of great conflict” reads like an embarrassing admission of past misjudgement. In 2010, the so-called “Friends of Yemen” was established, a group made up of 20 countries determined to improve Yemen’s capacity to maintain security and increase and coordinate foreign assistance. The tragic irony of the project was that it sought to stabilise a country that had been systematically destabilised by its leader.
Square of dignity
Nowadays, Yemen’s capital is divided by checkpoints manned by rival factions of the army, some of them allied with militias loyal to tribal leaders. Fearful residents argue that this stand-off is reminiscent of events in 1994 which marked the end of a promising period of liberalisation which had begun in 1990. The armies of the former YAR and the PDRY confronted and eventually fought each other, leaving thousands dead. Yemen’s democratic experiment, strained by economic downturn and the two former leaders’ ambition to outsmart each other, was doomed to failure.
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