Analysis: Always chaotic, Yemen yet to see worst

June 5, 2011 - 1:15 PM
Mideast Yemen

An anti-government protestor, his face painted with the colours of his national flag, shouts slogans while celebrating with others following President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia, in Sanaa, Yemen, Sunday, June 5, 2011. Thousands of protesters are dancing and singing in the Yemeni capital Sanaa after the country's authoritarian leader flew to Saudi Arabia to receive medical treatment for wounds he suffered in a rocket attack on his compound. Arabic reads on his body,

CAIRO (AP) — Even at the best of times, Yemen looks like a nation about to unravel.

Now that the U.S.-allied president has left the country for medical treatment and may not return, citizens of the poorest Arab country are contemplating a future that could be even worse than the last 33 years under authoritarian rule.

The question of who would ultimately replace Saleh could unleash new and unpredictable power struggles among the country's powerful tribes, the youth movement that has led the anti-Saleh protests and remnants of the leader's regime, including his son.

In the meantime, the numerous conflicts and economic and social problems that were already leading Yemen to ever greater disorder and hardship before this year's unrest broke out look certain to remain unaddressed as the political crisis deepens.

All that is of great concern far beyond Yemen's borders, especially by the U.S. government, which had relied on Saleh in battling one of the most active branches of al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has an estimated 300 hard-core members taking sanctuary in Yemen's foreboding mountains, plotting attacks on targets in Europe and the United States while enjoying the protection of tribal chiefs at odds with Saleh's regime.

Al-Qaida militants would likely benefit from more chaos in Yemen, gaining more freedom to plot attacks without being disrupted by Saleh's U.S.-trained counterterrorism forces. But the militants don't have the manpower to capture and hold any significant part of Yemen or replace government authorities.

However, the Saudis and their American backers would want any future regime in Yemen to forcefully go after al-Qaida militants to disrupt their capabilities.

The group has been linked to several nearly successful attacks on U.S. targets, including the plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009. It also put sophisticated bombs into U.S.-addressed parcels that made it onto cargo flights.

Yemen is also home to U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the United States has put on a kill-or-capture list. Washington accuses him of becoming a key al-Qaida operative and inspiring attacks on the U.S., including the 2009 shooting at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13 people.

Yemen has faced other destabilizing threats that could now worsen, including a secessionist movement in the south that has steadily gained strength in recent years, raising the specter of the nation breaking into two parts or a civil war to prevent that from happening.

The north is home to rebellious Shiites who the government insists are backed by Iran.

Saleh has used a mixture of political acumen, patronage and violence to keep Yemen together, if only just, and will be a hard act to follow in a country where almost every adult male has a firearm, religious fundamentalism is widespread and resentment, even contempt, of authority is a popular sentiment.

No one in Saleh's regime has enough of his qualities to succeed, said Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"I can't see any remnant of the Saleh government staying in place after this," he said.

Yemen's latest conflict began as a peaceful protest movement that Saleh's regime occasionally used brutal force to suppress. It transformed in recent weeks into an outright armed conflict between the president's forces and tribesmen loyal to a chieftain who sided with the protesters after years of supporting the president.

Saleh's departure may have spared the country civil war, but the standoff between him and protesters across the nation who demand his immediate resignation has laid bare Yemen's divisions and compounded its economic woes.

Shrouded in secrecy, Saleh left for Saudi Arabia early on Sunday to seek medical treatment for wounds he suffered Friday in a rocket attack on his compound in the capital, Sanaa. News of his departure sparked wild celebrations on the streets of Sanaa, but the fear of what could be in store for Yemen was not far from the mind of some.

"We are happy he is gone," enthused Fayza Abdullah, a protester. "Let us celebrate his departure regardless of what the future brings," she said.

The tribesmen, a powerful and conservative force, would likely take credit for ousting Saleh and seek to dominate the next government if the president never comes back. That would in turn place them at odds with the mostly liberal youth groups that have organized the massive anti-Saleh protests since February.

The groups also fear that the top army officers who have defected to their side in March would eventually abandon them and seek to maintain the military's traditional hold on power in Yemen, rather than leave the government in the hands of civilians with liberal or reformist ideologies that would curtail their influence.

The tribesmen are led by Sadeq al-Ahmar, a close ally of Saudi Arabia known to receive financial and other support from Riyadh. Similarly, most senior officers in Yemen benefit from the generosity of the Saudis, who will want to see their allies in Yemen take charge after Saleh rather than see its southern neighbor mired in the instability that comes with a transition to democratic rule.

An additional source of danger comes from the powerful members of Saleh's regime who the president left behind in Yemen when he left for Saudi Arabia. These include his son and heir apparent Ahmed, who heads the well-equipped and highly trained Republican Guard, and four close relatives who command key military units.

The son and his relatives, many in Yemen suspect, were left to fight for the survival of Saleh's regime until the president returns, although the Saudis are unlikely to allow him back in Yemen, if only to spare the country more bloodshed.

"I fear the battle of the desperates," said Majed al-Madhaji, a human rights activist, alluding to what Saleh's son and relatives could do. "This is the biggest fear, that they decide to bring down the temple."

Yemen has, meanwhile, been inching closer to economic collapse and any future regime in the country will have to seek massive foreign aid to create jobs and feed the most vulnerable groups.

Already, the country is running out of water and the little oil it produces has stopped because of the upheaval of the past months. Oil accounts for about 60 percent of the government's revenue, and more than 90 percent of what it collects from exports, according to the IMF figures. The drop in oil revenue has left Yemen facing multibillion-dollar annual budget deficits in recent years.

Nearly half of all Yemenis live under the poverty line set by the World Bank at $2 per day and don't have access to proper sanitation. Less than a tenth of the country's roads are paved, while more than 50 percent of children are malnourished.

The unrest of the past three months have also led to a dramatic surge in food prices in the capital and a shortage of basic items, forcing tens of thousands to flee to rural areas where prices remain affordable. Power cuts have grown more frequent, with up to 20-hour outages in Sanaa. A shortage of fuel meant that water tanks are unable to deliver to water households.

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Hendawi is the AP's Egypt chief of bureau.