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Issue 265, Friday 27 May 2011 - 23 Jumad al-Akhar 1432

Yemen after Saleh: A future fraught with violence

By A Correspondent

President Saleh refusing to relinquish power

As the Arab Spring has penetrated the Arabian Peninsula, there is much talk nowadays in every part of Yemen about change and the toppling of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime that ruled the country over the past three decades. And this is the first time in Yemen’s history that Yemeni people participate in a ‘revolution’ that is raging across the northern and southern parts despite a rebellion in the former and a growing secession movement in the latter.

Yemen’s veteran Saleh, 65, describes ruling Yemen like ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’, but this time he got an abrupt bite that will dislodge him soon. The question is, will these snakes continue to exist or will they be engulfed by the tide of change with the end of Saleh’s rule? Analysing the current situation in the country, the mistakes and policies of Saleh’s regime over the past 33 years will have negative effect on the post- youth revolution period. Two major scenarios people always fear have gradually appeared on the surface: sectarian violence and internal conflict.

Since the unification of its northern and southern parts in 1990, Yemen has gone through various stages, which was significantly reflected on the social aspect. First there was the mixture of two societies, one being Marxist and the other tribal and conservative; then there was a civil war in 1994, which toppled the socialist sovereignty, followed by a rebellion in the north in 2004 and a secessionist movement in the south in 2006; in addition to the resurgence of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. These factors markedly re-shaped the Yemeni society.

Following the new multi-partisan system in 1990, new Islamic powers existed to take part in the political life. On top of these was Islah Party (or described as Muslim Brotherhoods of Yemen) who are mainly Sunnis; this movement was so influential that it spread throughout Yemen. In the meantime, the Shi’a Zaidis tried to be counterpoised with the Sunni expansion through establishing a political party known as Al-Haqq, which was established by Hussein Al-Houthi, who first led a Shi’a-led rebellion in the north in 2004 and was killed in the same year by Government troops.

As the Islah party won more seats in the Parliamentary elections, some extremist members of Al-Haqq party thought participating in politics was useless as they believed in the Guardianship of the Jurist (Wilayat Al-Faqih) as is the case in Iran. A new movement was therefore created named as the ‘Believing Youth’ and today known as Houthi group. The fighting continued until 2010, during which the rebels managed to control Saada Governorate and some districts in Amran, Al-Jawf and Hajjah neighbouring governorates.

Rebel leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi managed to establish religious centres in other areas, including Sanaa and Dhamar governorates. During the fighting with Government forces, the rebels maintained good relations with the Yemeni Socialist Party and showed solidarity with the Southern Movement that calls for secession of southern Yemen. But at the same time they [Houthis] carried out attacks on Sunni-oriented tribes that backed the Government in its wars to quell the rebellion. While the Islah party was successful at the political level, the Houthi group managed to establish itself as a powerful entity with autonomy ambitions.

The indications of a sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shi’a sects are taking place days in some parts of the country. At Sana’a’s Change Square where thousands of demonstrators have been staging protests for over three months, the two rivals have quarrelled over who should lead the protests. Sunni protesters refuse to pray behind a Shi’a Imam and vice versa. Early this month, Sunni tribesmen from Marib Governorate went to Al-Jawf Governorate to fight against Houthis who tried to control local authority premises. A reliable source told The Muslim News of a recent incident in Saada that a citizen’s home was set fire as he refused to obey a Houthi judge’s order.

Hostility between Sunnis and Shi’as is also evident in Amran Governorate, home to the biggest tribal confederation known as Hashid, where Al-Ahmar family is based. In an interview with a Saudi newspaper in March, Hussein Al-Ahmar, brother of Hamid who is believed to be the biggest threat to President Saleh, said they will not allow for Houthis to rule Yemen. Earlier he warned the Houthis of any attempt to intervene in ‘his tribes’.

Apparently, it will be difficult for the next regime to re-take the areas already controlled by the Houthi group. The latter have fought the Saleh regime over the past six years to have their own independent region and therefore will not easily give up the control. As President Saleh puts it, “Houthis will never accept [the rule of] the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Another sect that is on bad terms with Sunnis are the Bohras, a branch of Shi’a Ismailis. The Bohra members are among the rich businessmen of Yemen and are supporting the Saleh regime because Sunni scholars say their sect contradicts with true Islamic teachings. Sufism is yet another sect in Yemen that, along with the previous two Shi’a sects, is concerned with the domination of the Sunni- oriented Islah party. A prominent Bohra member was killed this month in Sana’a Governorate, but still it is not clear the reasons behind this incident.

The future of Yemen will be predominately of sectarian concerns.


Saleh came to power in 1978 at a time when no one accepted to embark on this position as two earlier presidents were killed. Since then Saleh has built very strong relations with tribal confederations and religious leaders to ensure a safe reign. However, he has used divide-and-ruled tactics and succeeded in obtaining the loyalty of these tribes by giving them autonomy and regular financial incentives.

This policy has significantly undermined the state’s influence on tribal-governed areas. As an evidence of this are abductions, tribal conflict, bombing oil pipelines are common place. The army and security forces have also been attacked by armed tribesmen.

The state’s failure to control tribal areas has on the other hand allured Al-Qa’ida members to take refuge there and at times have been provided protection by some tribesmen. It is the same state weakness that has led to the existence of a Shi’a-led rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south.

More of a worry is the regime’s social support mobilisation and provocation, which observers say will trigger violence. A Friday preacher in one of Sana’a mosques was harshly beaten up by people as he criticised the President in his sermon; another imam was beaten up as he encouraged people not to take part in anti-government protests.

Earlier this month, an army unit in one of Sana’a Governorate districts trying to move to Marib Governorate was stopped and attacked by armed tribesmen who also seized a number of military vehicles and a tank. Pro- government tribes in the same area launched attacks against the offenders at the behest of the regime.

All these indicate that Saleh supporters will bear their teeth when a new regime will try to enforce law; so is the case with tribal sheikhs who wield independent power. President Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, who ruled northern Yemen from 1974 to 1977, was assassinated as he tried to end tribal loyalty and Yemen’s medieval social classes by proclaiming all Yemenis as equal. Under his rule, leaders of Hashid and Bakil - the largest tribal confederations in Yemen - were marginalised. A few weeks ago prominent tribal figures, including Al-Ahmar family, announced their support for the youth revolution in order to maintain the same tribal status and be credited in the success of the ‘peaceful revolution’.

The new regime will face many difficulties in dealing with the troublesome tribes; any procedure to cut the regular financial contributions and annual ‘allocated’ job opportunities will inevitably end up with armed conflicts.

Moreover, Saleh’s latest speeches to his supporters were characterised with a tone of incitement. “We will face a challenge with a challenge,” he recently addressed thousands of his supporters. He also made it clear that after leaving office, he will act as an opposition and topple the new regime.

Then there is the Southern Movement, which first sprang in late 2006 and has gradually changed to an armed group as they carried out a series of assassinations against security officers. A Ministry of Interior report said 254 soldiers and officers were killed between 2009 and first half of 2010 by the Southern Movement and another 1,900 were injured.

Yemen has been classified as a failed state and “many worry Yemen is the next Afghanistan.” Desperate poverty coupled with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment are widespread nationwide. At the political level, Yemen will have a new map, with new political and religious coalitions. Yemen will not be a great gift for the next regime as it has to dance with a new family of snakes; and as the proverb goes, “As I lost, so will you!”

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