When we last left off with Yemen, large factions of the military and numerous tribal leaders were dissenting from President Saleh. The protesters at University Square, who had been indiscriminately shot at just days before, were singing, dancing, and handing out roses to the troops that came to protect them. Today we find that this momentum has started to slow and a sort of holdout has begun. U.S. officials, for their own reasons, are sending out dire warnings of collapse; other Arab governments speak of civil war. But what is really going on here?
For the most part, it looks like President Saleh is simply buying time. He had tentatively discussed speeding up elections to appease the opposition. It was also said that over the weekend he met with certain members of the opposition to discuss the future without him. A path that ensured his dignity during his stepping down was discussed, and appointing a new vice president to aid the transition was considered. For those camped out in University Square, things were moving right along and optimism filled the air.
Then, on Sunday, President Saleh gave an interview with Al Arabiya, a popular Arab news station. In it, he makes it very clear that he has no imminent plans of departure. The rhetoric had turned from, “We are prepared to give up power, but only to good people, after elections,” on Friday to, “Yemen is a time bomb and if we and our friendly countries don’t have a return to dialogue, there will be a destructive civil war,” by Sunday afternoon.
Naturally this causes quite a bit of outrage in the opposition community. So far there have been announcements that all discussions with President Saleh were now off the table. The attitude has generally been that if he’s going to lie and manipulate, then why waste the time of the opposition? Still, some groups within the larger umbrella of pro-democracy protesters have suggested the future can be negotiated.
So then what’s the deal with the extremism? We hear the U.S. counting off some rather unsettling scenarios about the ouster of President Saleh and the rise of Al Qaeda. There is a legitimate concern about the level of extremism within the country. As noted by Robert Gates, factions of Al Qaeda have a fairly serious stronghold on southern parts of the region. If President Saleh, who used to be a somewhat stabilizing force, does leave office, that could severely disrupt U.S. missions in the region and the future expansion of insurgents.
However, it should be noted that this stronghold of extremism is something that occurred during the reign of President Saleh. During this same reign, we saw extremists from within Yemen help plan and elicit advice to a number of insurgents both domestically and in the U.S. So there is little reason to assume that President Saleh has it under control. Furthermore, the opposition, which tends to lean towards more pro-democracy ideals, is just escaping tyrannical constraints. Living under the constant control of a dictator rarely makes revolutionaries want to put up with the strict dogma of a fragmented extremist group.
Yet there is some alarming news in Yemen that comes from the Southern city of Jaar. There are reports, although difficult to confirm in totality, that the military has committed a series of strikes on the town after government buildings were seized by opposition supporters. Jaar is a town with a very strong Al Qaeda presence and this could be seen as a large threat to those who are looking for democracy inside and outside of the country.
Such fears have also led to Saudi Arabia throwing their weight behind President Saleh. Yemen, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia, hasn’t always had the most peaceful of relationships with the large, wealthy nation to their north. Border disputes, skirmishes, and issues over security have popped up time and time again. This makes Saudi Arabia especially wary of any change that could disrupt their own tenuous stability.
With allies, domestic military, and civilians divided on where they stand, it seems like we are only moments away from a serious game changer within the country. Most thought it would be over this week, even dubbing last Friday a “Day of Departure.” But with President Saleh getting seemingly more steadfast and large allies throwing their weight behind him, the endgame seems that much more difficult to determine. And as long as Saleh remains in office, it’s hard to imagine the opposition packing up their makeshift city in University Square and heading home.