It was a little more than a month ago, when the protests against Ali Abdullah Saleh were just beginning, when President Saleh order the Yemeni army to protect all demonstrators and urged all to avoid violence. The order came after the death toll of the uprising reached 15. Needless to so, things have gotten worse, as between 12 and 16 were killed yesterday in the city of Taiz, south of the capital. As Saleh’s demise becomes more inevitable, it is easy to believe that the leader has adopted a Qaddafi-light strategy of resorting to violence. Though Saleh’s approach to the demonstrations calling for his ouster evolved from one of moderation to desperation, he is unlikely to order violent repression at or anywhere near the levels of Qaddafi.
Initially, Saleh promised protesters that he would not run for another election in 2013. The opposition rejected the offer, having no reason to believe Saleh, as the president has repeatedly made such a claim. The president’s next step – promising constitutional, legal and political reforms – was also rejected, as was his offer to resign by the end of 2011. Saleh almost made a deal to resign immediately, but backtracked, leading International Crisis Group to declare that: “The political tide in Yemen has turned decisively against President Ali Abdullah Saleh…His choices are limited: he can fight his own military or negotiate a rapid and dignified transfer of power.” Saleh’s turning point might have been when the Obama administration officially announced that it was time for Saleh to go.
“Yemenis had been debating for weeks,” says Dexter Filkins, “whether Saleh would fight like Qaddafi or go peacefully like Mubarak. The consensus seemed to be that Saleh would fall between these extremes, but nobody knew exactly where. He wasn’t crazy, but he wasn’t a tired old man, either.” Initially it seemed as though Saleh was more like Mubarak than Qaddafi, but as the death count grows, a shift seems apparent. Fortunately, there are major problems with Saleh’s capability to repress the people, through regular military forces or irregular tribal forces.
Yemeni regular forces are generally controlled by Saleh’s relatives and are thus able to crackdown on protests (as we have been seeing in the last few days). Yet, as was shown in Libya, the use of regular forces against civilians will result in international condemnation, isolation and possibly sanctions. Unlike Libya, though, Yemen is an incredibly poor country that depends largely on the international flow of money through remittances from abroad or aid. Moreover, there are members of the military that are not related to Saleh and are only loyal through a loose coalition of tribes. The violent use of regular forces could create more dissent within the army and potentially more defections – as we have already seen.
Irregular forces would need to be made up of loyalist from within Saleh’s own tribe and from within the ruling tribal coalition Hashid. Saleh has, however, enlisted most of his own tribe (Sanhan) into the regular military force and the tribal leaders once allied with Saleh through the Hashid have joined the protests. Finally, the Yemeni protest movement is heterogeneous, comprised of individuals and groups from across the tribal spectrum, meaning that any irregular forces may be called to violently suppress members of their own tribe.
Abdul Nasser Al-Muwaddah writes that it “is known that President Saleh normally avoids bloody confrontation, and favors compromise when the need arises” and without the means (financial and social) to act like Qaddafi, Saleh’s evolution will be rather limited. By gradually increasing his concessions to protesters, Saleh unwillingly hardened the resolve of the Yemeni people to see a revolution as in neighboring Egypt. Consequently, Saleh is left with the option of leaving his post through peaceful negotiations or fighting for the continuation of his regime. In other words, the continuation of the regime in any capacity means the prolongation and probable intensification of the crisis.
Although the recent clashes between governmental forces and protesters is troubling, Saleh must realize that pursuing violent repression will likely result in his ugly downfall, considering the limitations of his forces. With a history of avoiding violence and with Obama whispering (perhaps forcefully) in his ear, Saleh will likely allow the protests to sweep him out of power in favor of some type of transitional council. Of course, this transition is full of violent potential that is certain – to some extent – be realized. Fortunately though, Yemen’s decent – as ugly and violent as it could be – hardly has the potential to reach the levels of brutality of Libya.
Photo from Al Jazeera