Last Friday Tawakul Karman became the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Sharing the award with Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, she has brought a rare cheer to Yemen. The uprising she helped engineer has fractured the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, but he continues to hold on. By KHADIJA PATEL.
On Saturday Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh pledged, once again, to step down in the near future. The impoverished gulf country has been in the throes of turmoil since January this year when anti-government demonstrations first broke out. Opposition activists however have yet to be persuaded that Saleh is indeed serious about relinquishing power. They point out that Saleh reneges each time he promises to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) mediated proposal to find a solution to the political impasse in the country.
Saleh’s dithering is easily understood. He explained to The Washington Post last month that he would not step down as long as his key rivals, the Al-Ahmars – a senior general, Mohsen al-Ahmar who defected to the opposition and a billionaire tribal leader, Hamdid al-Ahmar and his family – retain their power and influence in the country. Saleh believes that it would be “very dangerous” if the al-Ahmars were to retain their positions while he ceded his, saying that outcome could “lead to civil war”. A civil war is already a distinct possibility. Saleh’s forces and the Al-Ahmars continue to battle each other in the streets of the capital Sanaa. Saleh has insinuated that the al-Ahmars were behind the attack on his presidential palace in June in which he was severely wounded. The battle for power in Yemen is now centred between an embittered Saleh and the power hungry al-Ahmar faction. This is no longer a battle between a despotic ruler and the will of the people. It is Saleh’s last salvo to prevent the al-Ahmar from ascending to power in Yemen.
Hamid al-Ahmar has explicitly expressed his interest in the presidency and already wields enormous political clout in the main opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties. Mohsen, on the other hand, was once among Saleh’s closest allies and he continues to command much of Yemen’s military. If Saleh makes his exit contingent on the al-Ahmars abandoning their ambitions for power, Yemen is set to be thrust further into chaos.
The current political upheaval in Yemen does certainly owe it roots to the “Arab Spring” styled demonstrations. Several thousand Yemenis demonstrated against Saleh, calling on him to vacate power after 30 years in office. Saleh responded with a characteristic candour, unleashing the wrath of the security forces on the protesters. The protests led by the likes of Nobel Laureate Tawakul Karman persevered anyway. As the uprisings grew stronger and spread further through Yemen, the world watched expectantly for the “Arab Spring” to claim a Yemeni casualty. Saleh was certain he would survive the popular uprisings but as some of his closest aides turned against him, even the US was roused to part ways with Saleh. The al-Ahmars took advantage of the swell of opinion against Saleh to launch their challenge against his power. They have climbed onto the bandwagon of the popular uprising to take on Saleh for their own ends.
The US has relied on Saleh as an ally in the war against the al-Qaeda branches in Yemen. It will require that any future Yemeni government be similarly cooperative. As in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the rise of Islamist regimes remains a distinct possibility. Tawakul Karman herself is reported to be a member of the purportedly Islamic fundamentalist Islah Party. So the al-Ahmars may yet emerge to be best placed to take over from Saleh.
In Yemen, the revolution has gone from the bastion of the will of the people to the convenience of Saleh. DM
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