November 23rd, 2011
03:24 PM ET

Yemen after Saleh – still a treacherous road

By CNN’s Tim Lister

After months of bloodshed, intrigue and revenge that made Yemen seem like an Arabian version of Hamlet, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has finally transferred his powers to his vice-President – and elections are to be held in three months.

At the ceremony in Riyadh to seal the transition deal worked out by the Gulf Co-operation Council, Saleh seemed relaxed and even chuckled as he signed several copies of the agreement, the result of intense diplomatic shuttling by UN envoy Jamal bin Omar and growing pressure from the international community.

But Saleh also took a parting shot at his opponents, saying they had destroyed in months everything that had been built over years.

April Longley Alley, Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, says the Riyadh deal offers an “opportunity to move past the current political impasse and to deal with critical issues like deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions as well as the very difficult task of institutional reform.”

Even so, Longley Alley and other analysts expect the epilogue to be anything but predictable. There are plenty of competing elements left behind: the thousands of mainly young demonstrators who took to the streets of Sanaa and other cities in January to demand democratic change; the tribal alliance that took up arms against Saleh; secessionists in the south and a Shi’ite rebellion in the north; well-organized Islamist groups; and a budding al Qaeda franchise.

Perhaps the most powerful figure in Yemen now is Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armored Division. He defected in March and took a chunk of the army with him. His units now control northern districts of the capital and are facing off against powerful remnants of the Saleh clan. The president’s son Ahmed Ali Abullah Saleh, long groomed to be his successor, and his nephew, Yahya Muhammad Saleh, command the most effective units.

Longley Alley says the GCC accord “does not deal effectively with lingering tensions between Saleh's family on one hand and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the powerful al-Ahmar family on the other. Each of these power centers is heavily armed and still poised to fight.”

As if to remind the diplomats of the scale of the task ahead, pro- and anti-Saleh factions clashed in Sanaa hours before the ceremony. The challenge of “securing a ceasefire, removing armed tribesmen from urban centers, returning the military to the barracks and engaging in military-security reform will be serious stumbling blocks post-signing,” according to Longley Alley.

Al-Ahmar makes some western officials nervous because his links with radical Sunni Islamists. Yemeni observers say the Muslim Brotherhood has long been influential within al-Ahmar's military command and he is known for his antipathy toward Yemen's Shiites. A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2005 said that "Ali Mohsen's questionable dealings with terrorists and extremists would make his accession unwelcome to the U.S. and others in the international community."

Others in this powerful clan include Hamid al-Ahmar, a leader of the Islamist party Islah and a prominent businessman, who has long been an opponent of the president. His brother Sadiq, also has armed supporters in and around Sanaa.

For generations, the Yemeni state has done little without the al-Ahmars' blessing. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar, who died in 2007, was one of the few Yemenis to command widespread respect - a man often described as the father of modern Yemen. He was an opposition leader but also speaker of the Parliament, and Saleh was careful not to cross him. Today, there seems no one of similar stature.

The tens of thousands of demonstrators who have braved gunfire, tear-gas and pro-government gangs in Sanaa, Taiz and elsewhere are unlikely to be satisfied by Saleh’s departure. They fear being marginalized by the transfer of power from one clique to another as part of some “tribal bargain” and oppose Saleh’s immunity from prosecution, which is part of the Riyadh deal.

But Longley Alley says they have a role to play. “The independent youth in Yemen have at times been marginalized by the armed conflict. While these young people do not have guns or butter, they are beginning to organize and to recognize their potential influence.”

Others who may play a significant role include the cleric Abdulmajid al-Zindani, who heads the Salafist (very conservative) wing of the Islamist party Islah. He is feared by liberal Yemenis.

But ultimately – as one U.S. diplomatic cable sent from Sanaa in 2005 put it: "True power still derives from the military and the tribes."

As for the 69-year old Saleh himself, why he chose this moment to sign away his powers is probably down to a combination of factors. He still needs medical treatment for the burns sustained in an attack on the Presidential Palace in June – injuries that left him in a Saudi hospital for three months. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon says Saleh told him he would be traveling to New York for treatment soon.

There may be other reasons Saleh finally signed: he has seen the violent end of Moammar Gadhafi and growing pressure on Bashar al Assad in Syria. He has also been subject to intense diplomatic pressure by Saudi Arabia and the United Nations finally to ratify the GCC deal. The European Union had begun considering sanctions. And military units loyal to the President have lost ground in recent weeks.

But what are his plans now? No-one has the definitive answer. The intrigue is reminiscent of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that drew the post-Napoleonic map of Europe. When the Russian envoy died suddenly, Austria’s Prince Metternich is reputed to have said: “I wonder what his motive was.”

Whatever power structure emerges, Yemen's next leaders will face daunting tasks - inheriting a state where oil revenues have declined and the economy is in ruins, where poverty is endemic and where a young and rapidly growing population faces a chronic shortage of water. Not to mention the percolating rebellions in the south and north, and a well-entrenched affiliate of al Qaeda.

To recall a line from Hamlet that might well apply to Yemen today:

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions.”

Filed under: Arab Spring • Yemen
soundoff (16 Responses)
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  5. Mike

    This is just ongoing fallout from the ill-conceived partitioning of the Ottoman Empire at the close of WWI.
    The only reason it is still going on is because it was such an epic screw-up.

    November 26, 2011 at 4:39 am | Reply
    • Jack B

      You have a point when it comes to other 'artificial' countries in the Middle East, but most of Arabia, including Yemen (called Felix Arabia by the Romans), was never part of the Ottoman Empire.

      November 26, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
  6. Jack B.

    What we have here is a witches' brew of tribalism and radical Islamism, which will inevitably drown those few Yemeni who understand what a secular, liberal democracy is and wish for it. As everywhere esle in the Middle East, in the end the choice is between a more-or-less secular dictatorship and a theocratic Islamist regime, a dictatorship by definition. For our sake I am hoping for the former...

    November 25, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  7. Gopherit

    With Saleh, who allowed and supported U.S. Predator drone strikes in Yemen, out of power it will be interesting to note what the new(?) government's attitude towards the U.S. strikes will be. If U.S. strikes are allowed to continue that could play into the hands of anti-American factions in Yemen. With the U.S. targeting "terrorists" (read " anti-Americans), using the U.S. buzzword al-Qaeda its involvement wold be seen as promoting Yemeni pro-Western and pro-Saudi-oriented factions and that would not meet with the approval of Yemenis who for whatever reason do not care for either of those foreign interests.

    November 25, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  8. Susan

    The people of Yemen now have a chance at a better life. Prayers for their success are in order.

    November 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  9. Curt

    Lets hope the new government continues to cooperate with drone warfare against Al-Qaeda.

    November 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  10. madscience

    God bless Yemen. It, now, needs help geting back on it's feet.

    November 25, 2011 at 8:22 am | Reply
  11. alhaj

    you are a good solder of Salih National security, even if you try to give your name an American one
    if so wakeup, or just watch the Int TVs to see how salih been a bloody monster
    the wold is change and the media news is covering the global
    not for me ....or the free, peaceful people

    November 25, 2011 at 12:31 am | Reply
  12. Matt

    The above post sounds like someone who benefited from the Salih regime. Read some history and see how Salih played the tribes against each other to his benefit. Salih brought down Yemen, not the other way around. Ohh and by the way, it was oil that ultimately wrecked Yemen's economy. Oil profits supported the rampant cronyism that kept Sailh in Power. None of the money went to the people. Salih is gone, that’s tonight's good news!

    November 24, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Reply
  13. Mary

    To see how Yemen is suferring the imposition of radicals, is sad, we lived in Yemen in 1986 when the oil pipe was being built, Saleh brought his country to the XX century. He open the country to be modernized, a country where tribe loyalty is more important than The Yemen, he did an excellent job, we lived 3 years, it was were rewarding,the people, the cities, as a woman I was respected, as an American the same.
    He asked nuns of Mother Theresa to come and work with elderly, never I felt persecuted as a Roman Catholic married with a Jew. A country that accepted refugees as far as from Vietnam, where Muslims prayed all at the same Moque even if they were from diferent verstions. Very sad indeed. Radicals are winning and Yemen will loose.

    November 24, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Reply
    • Shureih

      just a correction to what you wrote Mary... The people who came to Yemen were Yemenis who left the country in the '30s. They were about a thousand (2 airplanes brought them to Yemen) or 50 families.

      November 25, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply

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