Yemen: face-off at the mosque

Scene of confrontation: the Saleh mosque in Sana'a

Close to the presidential palace in Sana'a is the Saleh mosque. Build at a cost of $60m and opened in 2008 by President Ali Abdullah Saleh (after whom the mosque is named), it is one of the most extravagant buildings in Yemen, with five domes and six towering minarets. It can hold more than 40,000 worshippers.

Saleh, who was driven out of office in 2012, no longer controls Yemen but he does control the Saleh mosque. It functions outside the aegis of the Office of Religious Endowments and has its own guards who appear to be loyalists of the ex-president.

On Saturday, troops loyal to the current president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, surrounded the mosque and sealed off the area. According to latest reports, they are still there.

When Saleh stepped down following a popular uprising he was allowed to remain in the country and – controversially – was granted immunity from prosecution as part of his resignation deal. Although President Hadi has managed to remove some of Saleh's relatives from key positions, the ex-president continues to meddle in Yemeni politics.

Hadi's decision to send tanks and troops to the mosque was apparently prompted by claims that Saleh was preparing to launch an attack on the presidential palace nearby. It is said that weapons were being stored in the mosque and a tunnel was discovered linking the building to the presidential palace. There have also been reports of snipers permanently stationed in the mosque's minarets, and of prison cells deep in its basement. How much of that is true remains to be seen.

The war of nerves between president and ex-president stepped up a notch last Wednesday when Hadi ordered the closure of Saleh's TV station, Yemen Today, and a related newspaper, accusing them of being biased and inciting anti-government protests.

Meanwhile, Saleh reinforced the defences around his home in Sana'a and reportedly summoned tribal militias to support him in the capital. On Sunday, in a post on Twitter, Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi reported seeing tens of cars in the area, full of tribal men. They were heavily armed, he said, with "everything except tanks".

The activity around Saleh's home seems to have been the cause of rumours circulating in Sana'a on Saturday that Saleh was about to be arrested. Although Saleh cannot be arrested for crimes committed during his presidency he could, presumably, be arrested for crimes committed subsequently. Actually arresting him would be difficult, though.

There's little doubt that Saleh would like to oust Hadi if he could, though it's unclear whether he was really plotting a coup. There is also speculation that Hadi might have staged the confrontation to divert attention from Yemen's other, multiple crises. In another 
post on Twitter, al-Muslimi asks: "Did Hadi take a page from Saleh's play book: 'Solve' a crisis by creating an even bigger crisis? "
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 16 June 2014