Yemen: The fall of President Salih

This is a compilation of all my blog posts relating to the Yemeni uprising of 2011, together with a some articles I wrote for the Guardian, in chronological order.

Brian Whitaker

Salih: president for life?

Blog post, 2 Jan 2011

Yemen's parliament has begun debating constitutional changes which, among other things, would allow President Salih to continue in power indefinitely.

The presidency is currently limited to two seven-year terms – meaning that Salih must leave office in 2013. Salih has already been in power in Sanaa for 32 years but previous constitutional changes have re-set the clock on the two-term limit.

The proposal this time is to remove the two-term limit altogether while reducing the length of presidential terms from seven years to five.

This has been rejected by opposition parties but, despite recent efforts to hold a "national dialogue", the ruling General People's Congress party (GPC) – which has an overwhelming majority in parliament – seems determined to steamroller it through.

The US has criticised the government's unilateralist approach, fearing that it could lead to an opposition boycott of the parliamentary elections scheduled for next April.

On Friday, a State Department spokesman said: "Previously, we consistently welcomed and supported the commitments of both the government and the opposition to address issues related to constitutional reforms and other election reforms through the National Dialogue. We continue to believe that the interests of the Yemeni people will be best served through that process of negotiations."

The GPC duly condemned this as interference in Yemen's internal affairs and an infringement of its national sovereignty. However, Yemen's dependence on international aid means that the US and other countries do have some leverage, and on Saturday parliament decided to refer the constitutional changes to a special committee which may possibly delay them until after the coming election.

An article on the GPC's website describes some of the other changes included in the proposals.

'Treason' claim over Clinton visit

Blog post, 13 Jan 2011

Hillary Clinton paid a surprise five-hour visit to Yemen on Tuesday en route from the Emirates – the first visit by a US secretary of state for more than 20 years.

A good deal of the media interest focused on her fall as she boarded the plane to leave but since her departure the visit has been causing ructions in Yemen.

Besides having lunch with President Salih, she met opposition and civil society representatives privately at the US embassy – and the regime is furious.

Aref al-Zuka, a senior figure in the ruling party has denounced the opposition leaders who met Clinton as "traitors and agents of foreign states", and has demanded that they be prosecuted for treason.

The authorities have also concocted a new rule, disguised as an anti-terrorism measure: "it is strictly prohibited [for] any person to enter any embassy or headquarters of the foreign mission" except "by prior coordination with the relevant security agencies".

In a statement after meeting Salih, Clinton stressed: "Above all, the United States is committed to the people of Yemen ... We want this to be a relationship not just between leaders and governments, but between the people of Yemen and the people of the United States of America."

The Yemen Post reports:

Hasan Zaid, the general secretary for the opposition al-Haqq Party said that from the discussions JMP [united opposition] leaders had with Mrs Clinton, he came to understand that Washington wants change and supports it.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Joint Meeting Parties leaders in a closed door meeting which continued more than two hours.

According to Zaid, opposition was given great importance by the visiting American delegation, and this will help the reform strategy in the country.

"Without national agreements on key points, there will be no solution to the country's problems, and Clinton understood that."

"We are confident to say that the JMP will not enter elections until the ruling party agrees to the terms we agreed on previously. It seems to me that pressure was put on the government to change some of its stances, and will most likely return to the dialogue table, and this time with the Americans observing."

"Mrs. Clinton showed strong support for the opposition and clearly mentioned the need for change."

"The US support for political reforms is respected by the opposition, and we feel that this is a positive step the US government. International pressure needs to be put on the Yemeni government and Clintons visit is a step in the right direction."

According to News Yemen, those who met Mrs Clinton included:
Mohammed Abdul-Malik al-Mutawakkil (Joint Meeting Parties), Abdul Wahab Medial (Islah), Sultan Alatawani (Nasserist), Hassan Zaid (al-Haqq), Mohammed Salem Basendwah (Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue), Ahmed Haidara (Baath Party) and Abu Bakr Baveb (Socialist Party).

Yemeni protesters target Salih

Blog post, 21 Jan 2011

The Tunisia effect continues with a Reuters headline, "Protests erupt in Yemen", reporting that thousands took to the streets in the central city of Ta'izz yesterday.

This followed two nights of rioting by secessionist supporters in the southern city of Aden on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Since the overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, students and opposition activists have also held five protests in the capital, Sana'a, meeting a heavy-handed response from security forces.

Unlike Tunisia, though, such disturbances are nothing unusual in Yemen – probably no more than about four on the Richter scale in terms of the threat they pose to the regime.

"Of course it's hard to know what will happen in the coming days," Yemeni analyst Abdulrahman Salam told Reuters, "but the situation here is different because allegiances here lie first with tribes, clans or even families." These divisions, along with calls for secession in the south, make it very difficult to build a united front against President Salih, who has been in power in Sana'a since 1978.

Nevertheless, the opposition discourse seems to be focusing increasingly on Salih's presidency. The student protesters at Sana'a University, for example, held up signs saying: "Leave before you are forced to leave".

To some extent, Salih has brought this upon himself by proposing constitutional changes which would end the presidential two-term limit.

"We want constitutional amendments but we want amendments that don't lead to the continuance of the ruler and the inheritance of power to his children," Mohammed al-Sabry, head of the opposition coalition said in remarks quoted by Reuters. "We won't permit these corrupt leaders to stay in power and we are ready to sleep in the streets for our country's sake, in order to liberate it from the hands of the corrupt."

Without a constitutional amendment, Salih will be legally required to step down in 2013 – something which he is obviously trying to avoid. Before the events in Tunisia, it seemed likely that he would succeed in clinging on but now the balance of probability may be shifting in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the Yemen Observer reports more Gaddafi-like antics from the self-appointed "southern leader", Tariq al-Fadhli (of Fadli). In the courtyard of his home in Zinjibar on Wednesday, the aristocratic ex-jihadhist burned an American flag, a Yemeni flag, a flag of the former South Yemen and a green separatist flag, together with pictures of President Salih and three of the south's former Marxist leaders. He clearly has a lot to protest about.

In what the Yemen Observer describes as a strongly-worded speech, Fadli said: "To America and to the unjust, and to the dinosaurs: al-Majalah was destroyed with a cruise missile worth 600,000 US dollars. If this money was spent to develop the area, we would have had a wonderful town where not even a terrorist housefly would dare to enter." (In Fadli-speak, "the unjust" is code for Salih and "dinosaurs" is code for the Marxists.)

Wednesday's flag-burning was in odd contrast to another ceremony in Fadli's courtyard last February, when he hoisted an American flag and saluted it while a recording of The Star-Spangled Banner was played.

Note: The Reuters report quoted above describes Ta'izz as a "southern city". Though it lies south of Sana'a, it was not part of the southern state that merged with the north in 1990.

More protests in Yemen and Algeria

Blog post, 23 Jan 2011

There were more anti-government protests in Algeria and Yemen yesterday.

In Yemen, about 2,500 students and opposition activists demonstrated at Sana'a University, calling for President Salih to go. Although recent demonstrations have increasingly focused on Salih's presidency, this seems to have been the first one aimed primarily at ending his 32-year rule. References to Tunisia were seen in some of the placards.

Police used tear gas and about 30 demonstrators were arrested, according to the Associated Press.

CNN says 1,500 members of the security forces were on hand and there was also a smaller counter-demonstration, presumably organised by the ruling party, calling for Salih to stay.

The website AlmasdarOnline has a series of pictures apparently taken during yesterday's protests. Separately, the website also reports that Tawakkol Karman, a human rights activist and chair of the Yemeni organisation, Women Journalists Without Chains, was abducted last week by men in military uniform. The authorities have not confirmed her arrest but it is thought she is being held in the central prison. Ms Tawakkol was also briefly detained for questioning last October.

In Algiers, riot police clashed violently with demonstrators who were trying to hold a march in defiance of a ban on public gatherings. They prevented the marchers from leaving the headquarters of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy party. AP reports:

Riot police, backed by a helicopter and crowd-control trucks, ringed the exit to ensure marchers couldn't leave the building — and striking those who tried to come out to take part. Outside, some young men waved the national flag and chanted "Assassin Power!"

"I am a prisoner in the party's headquarters," said Said Sadi, a former presidential candidate who leads the Rally for Culture and Democracy party (RCD), said through a megaphone from a balcony window.

Demonstrators shouted "Boutef out!" referring to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Mohamed Khendek, one of the party's 19 members of parliament, is quoted as saying: "They indeed stopped us from marching, but politically, we have succeeded in breaking the wall of fear."

The RCD is a secular party with strong Berber connections.

Yemen's 'day of rage'

Blog post, 3 Feb 2011

Today has been declared a "day of rage" in Yemen and a demonstration is about to start in Sanaa as I write. This follows a series of protests in the capital last month (here and here) in which several thousands took part. The organisers are hoping for a much bigger turnout today – but that remains to be seen.

Jane Novak, who blogs about Yemen, says the protest has been switched at the last minute from Tahrir Square (like Cairo, Sanaa has one too) to the new university roundabout due to "regime thugs camped out in Tahrir Square with car loads of guns".

The interior ministry announced yesterday that it has set up roadblocks around Sanaa and stepped up its security forces – supposedly to stop people smuggling weapons into the city.

Meanwhile some (but not all) of the government websites have
gone down, including the websites of the president and parliament. It is possible they have been attacked by the Anonymous hacking group.

A Yemeni website,, with a mirror site at, is covering the events in Arabic, but Twitter and Facebook are not playing much of a part in the Yemeni protests.Internet penetration in the country is less than 2%, compared with 21% in Egypt and 34% in Tunisia.

New WikiLeaks document

Coinciding with today's protests, WikiLeaks has released a new US embassy memo from June 2005, headed: "Priorities for Washington visit: Saleh needs to be part of the solution".

Among other things, the document says: "Saleh touts Yemen as a leader in regional reform and has committed to democratisation. Domestically, however, he has run out of reforms he can implement at no political cost to himself." It also says:

"Rampant official corruption impedes foreign investment, economic growth, and comprehensive development ... MCC [the Millennium Challenge Corporation] provides the opportunity to commit the [government of Yemen] to a serious plan to combat endemic corruption. Saleh's feet must be held to the fire on what has thus far been mere lip service. MCC membership serves as both a carrot and stick in this regard."

The MCC is a US government agency that works with developing countries for the promotion of good governance, economic freedom and investment.

In November 2005 – five months after the leaked memo was written – Yemen was suspended from eligibility for the MCC's Threshold Programme "due to a deterioration in performance on the eligibility indicators". It was reinstated in 2007, "due to a demonstrated commitment to reform, particularly to reforms that address policy slippage".

In September 2007, the MCC granted Yemen $20.6 million to help it "fight corruption and improve the rule of law, political rights, fiscal policy and government effectiveness".

Moderately raging in Yemen

Blog post, 4 Feb 2011

Tens of thousands took part in Yemen's "day of rage" yesterday, and it looks like becoming a regular Thursday occurrence. The turnout was probably less than the organisers had been hoping and I doubt that it did much to frighten President Salih. Although he is increasingly unpopular, the opposition in Yemen is also very fragmented. This raises the question of what it would take to actually remove him, but I'll save that discussion for later. He isn't going this week. Or next.

placard from yesterday's demonstration in Yemen likening President Salih to the deposed imams. It says: "The rule of Imam Yahya: 13 years. The rule of Imam Ahmad: 14 years. The rule of Imam Ali [Salih]: 33 years."

Tribes, politics and guns in Yemen

Blog post, 7 Feb 2011

National politics or tribal politics? In Yemen it's often difficult to tell the difference, as illustrated by a violent spat on Saturday involving Hamid al-Ahmar, one of the most outspoken opposition MPs, and Nu'man Duwaid, the governor of Sana'a province.

Al-Ahmar is a prominent figure in the Hashid tribe – his father, besides being speaker of parliament and head of the Islah party, was paramount chief of the Hashid and, in his day, the most important tribal figure in Yemen.

Governor Duwaid, meanwhile, is a sheikh of the Khawlan tribe and a member of President Salih's party.

At a political rally last week, Duwaid accused al-Ahmar of having gained his wealth from looting public property. This was deemed as an insult to the honour of the Hashid tribe and Duwaid's Khawlan tribe duly apologised "according to the tribal norms".

On Saturday, though, armed supporters of al-Ahmar arrived at Duwaid's house in four vehicles and opened fire, killing one bystander and injuring three others. The Yemen Observer reports: "The governor’s security were able to get two of the four cars and confirmed to the interior ministry that they belong to Hamid al-Ahmar."

A statement from the ruling General People's Congress condemned the attack as "a terrorist act violating the conduct of difference in opinion, the values, laws and norms and traditions of the Yemeni people" and called for those involved to be brought to justice.

Later that evening, as al-Ahmar returned from a meeting of the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue (which he chairs), his guard spotted a pickup truck bearing an official licence plate, according to Arab News:

"When his guards went away from the house, more than 30 gunmen opened fire at them. No one was hurt in the attack and the Ministry of Interior was notified about the incident."

Al-Ahmar (profiled here in the Yemen Times) has been prominent among those calling for President Salih to step down. In a TV interview last month, he described the ruling party's efforts to change the constitution and abolish presidential term limits as "political dementia".

The Hashid are a force to be reckoned with in Yemen. The Yemen Times article notes:

"The heinous murder of [Hamid al-Ahmar's] ambitious uncle and grandfather led his father to mobilise the Hashid tribes, normally supporters of the Imam, to the side of the revolution when it broke out in north Yemen in 1962. The efforts of his father, family, and tribesmen eventually led to the permanent demise of the Imamate's 11 centuries rule."

Among his many business interests, al-Ahmar owns Sabafon, a mobile phone company which has been providing a messaging service for anti-Salih protesters.

The other Tahrir Square

Blog post, 12 Feb 2011

Lest we forget that Yemen also has a place called Tahrir Square, here's an account from Human Rights Watch about the events there yesterday:

Hundreds of men armed with knives, sticks, and assault rifles attacked anti-government protesters in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, as Yemeni security forces stood by ... Within an hour, the 1,000-plus protesters had been pushed from the square and at least 10 had been detained by security forces ...

Human Rights Watch witnessed at least 10 army trucks carrying men in civilian clothing to Sanaa's Tahrir Square, where a crowd of around 1,000 Yemenis had been demonstrating in support of the historic changes in Egypt and against the Yemeni government. Hundreds of men, their arrival coordinated by uniformed security agents, attacked the anti-government protesters with knives and sticks, prompting the majority to flee ...

A few dozen anti-government demonstrators remained in the square, sitting on the street, but they too fled after being charged by hundreds of armed government supporters.

It isn't the first time this has happened and it won't be the last. The Tunisian and Egyptian regimes both deployed hired rabbles during the uprisings there – though it didn't save either of them.

President Salih, who already faces a lightly-armed rebellion in the south and a dormant but more heavily-armed one in the far north, not to mention the al-Qaeda insurgency, is well aware of the "Tunisia effect" and the dangers it might pose for him. Last night, shortly after President Mubarak resigned in Egypt, Yemen's National Defence Council held "an expanded meeting" where it discussed, among other things, "improving the wages of government staff and personnel of the armed and security forces".

Buying loyalty is a tactic favoured by the oil-rich Gulf monarchies but there's only so far that Salih, heavily dependent on foreign aid, can go in that direction.

There was also a protest in the central city of Taizz, where 15,000 demonstrators gathered outside the governor's office, according to a post on Twitter. A video (of rather poor quality) shows a crowd in Taizz reacting to Mubarak's resignation.

Secessionists held further protests in the south, where government forces reportedly used tanks and treargas and fired warning shots.

This is a fairly normal state of affairs for Yemen and it doesn't pose an immediate threat to Salih. As I have said before, the Yemeni opposition is very disunited. But, with parliamentary elections scheduled for April, the next couple of months are likely to bring a period of intensified activity on the streets.

Tribes step up pressure on Salih

Blog post, 28 Feb 2011

Nobody can govern in Yemen without support from the tribes and on Saturday influential figures from the country's two main tribal groupings – the Hashid and the Bakil – abandoned President Salih.

"I announce my resignation from the General People's Congress [the ruling party] in protest at the attacks on peaceful demonstrators in Sanaa, Tai'zz and Aden," Hashid tribal chief Sheikh Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar told a huge gathering in Amran province, north of Sanaa.

The Yemen Postsayshis announcement was "warmly received by a large crowd of tribesmen", including members of Yemen's second largest tribal group, the Bakil.

Mohammad Abdel Illah al-Qadi, a prominent leader of the Sanhan (Salih's own branch of the Hashid) also announced he is leaving the party.

Yemen's tribes are not monolithic blocs, as Gregg Carlstrom points out in an article for al-Jazeera, and Salih still has supporters among them (partly as a result of bribing them with money and cars). Even so, the latest desertions are an important sign of which way the wind is blowing.

statement from the General People's Congress on Sunday played down the problem. It said "the resignation of some members of the GPC at this timing reveals the reality of the opportunists" and described the departures as "like an operation of purification of the GPC from the parasites that were unable to effect any development inside the organisation". It added that "the GPC has in its ranks millions of loyal and sincere members who have firm stands and work sincerely for siding with issues of the homeland and the people".

All this will come to a head with the parliamentary elections scheduled for April 27, which are likely to be conducted in the midst of unprecedented turmoil – assuming they do go ahead. They have already been postponed for by two years and to postpone them again would be extremely dangerous for Salih politically, as would rigging them to ensure another GPC victory.

Beyond April 27, the shape of events in Yemen is anyone's guess but Salih's survival prospects are clearly fading.

Departure plan for Yemen president

Blog post, 3 March 2011

There is talk of "initial agreement" in Yemen on a five-point plan put forward by opposition leaders which includes President Salih leaving office nine months from now.

Under pressure, Salih has already said he will step down in September 2013 when his current term ends. The nine-month idea seems to be an attempt to split the difference between those who want him to go now and Salih's desire to cling on for 18 months.

It's an interesting idea, though I have no idea whether it bear fruit. More important, perhaps, is that it shows Yemenis are now beginning to focus on how to manage a transition of power when it eventually comes.

Masses on the move in Yemen

Blog post, 5 March 2011

Back in January I wrote about a demonstration at Sana'a University. It was a fairly small affair involving some2,500 people (pictures here) but it was also, as far as I am aware, the first demonstration in the Yemeni capital aimed primarily at persuading President Salih to step down.

That, as it turned out, was just three days before the January 25 protests in Cairo that triggered the Egyptian revolution.

Fast-forward six weeks, and look at the scene in Sana'a yesterday. The video above shows streets jam-packed with demonstrators, and the scale of it is extraordinary.

I'm still unsure what, exactly, it will take to make Salih abandon his presidential palace but after this I really can't see him surviving until the end of his term in September 2013.

The British Foreign Office yesterday amended its travel advice regarding Yemen. It now says:

We advise against all travel to the whole of Yemen and we recommend that British nationals without a pressing need to remain leave using commercial means.

There's only one step up from this – which is to organise an evacuation of British citizens by non-commercial means. I can't recall such a tough warning in the past, except perhaps during the 1994 north-south war. The usual formula when trouble occurs in Yemen is to advise against "all but essential travel" or to apply warnings in relation to certain parts of the country.

The Foreign Office does tend to err on the side of caution in these matters but it suggests to me that the British Embassy in Sana'a thinks there is a strong possibility of Salih losing his grip in the very near future.

Yemeni elections delayed

Blog post, 12 March 2011

It seems that Yemenis will not be electing a new parliament on April 27 after all. March 10 was the official date for calling the elections. Nothing happened then and, according to the
Yemen Observer, the reason is that the electoral registers are not ready.

This technical problem effectively gets President Salih off the hook as far as blame for the delay is concerned. The elections were originally due in April 2009 but had been postponed for two years amid a boycott threat by opposition parties and widespread protests calling for reforms to guarantee a fraud-free vote.

In parallel with the electoral delay, Salih is offering a new constitution with a new era of parliamentary government, proportional representation, decentralisation, etc, etc.

John Brennan, President Obama's anti-terrorism adviser, has welcomed this and called on the opposition to "respond constructively" – an approach that contrasts strongly with the US attitude towards Gaddafi in Libya. The US, of course, is still fixated to a large extent on al-Qaeda's activities in Yemen and using Salih to combat terrorism.

In Yemen itself, Salih's latest initiative may succeed in dividing his critics. Some appear reasonably satisfied with it, though others are sceptical – and perhaps rightly so. Although the proposals seem fine in principle, Salih is a slippery customer and his promises could easily turn out to be just another tactic to defuse the current crisis and prolong his stay in power.

Meanwhile, there are reports this morning of escalating violence in the Yemeni capital. Police attacked a protest camp with tear gas, water cannon and live bullets, killing at least one person and injuring many more.

Britain's role in Yemeni violence

Blog post, 13 March 2011

There is growing international concern about attacks on demonstrators by Yemeni security forces and their allies. On Saturday, several people died (the exact number is unclear) during a pre-dawn offensive against the protesters' camp at Sana'a University.

Across the country, more than 30 protesters have been killed in recent weeks, according to various reports.

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, issued a statement yesterday condemning the excessive use of force and Human Rights Watch has called for a suspension of military and security assistance to Yemen.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, also described the violence as "unacceptable" – though unfortunately one of Britain's biggest arms companies has a role in it.

The Yemeni website al-Masdar Online claims that munitions used in the Sana'a attack, including smoke bombs and CS gas, were from a five-ton consignment provided by the United States in the second half of last year to assist the Yemeni government in combating terrorism.

The website has several pictures showing collections of used munitions. The markings on them are not very clear in the photographs but one is a Number 19 CS gas canister with a manufacturer's address in Casper, Wyoming.

Casper is the home of Defense Technology (owned by the British company, BAE Systems) which is a major supplier of CS gas.

Jeb Boone has an interesting blog post from the scene of yesterday's violence in Sana'a. "Yemeni military and security forces are spread so thin that they are now being sent to complete impossible tasks," he writes. The fact that they were heavily outnumbered by demonstrators may explain why they acted so violently – before retreating. Boone continues:

"I won’t be surprised to see soldiers beginning to join the protests. I’m fairly sure that the only reason many haven’t already done so is because they don’t want to lose their job. As it becomes clearer that Saleh’s days are numbered and soldiers continue to be sent off to fulfil impossible and incredibly dangerous tasks, they’re going to start defecting."

A terrible day for Yemen

Blog post, 18 March 2011

It has been a truly terrible day in Yemen, with more than 40 people reported dead as a result of attacks on demonstrators by the president's supporters in Sana'a. Although armed conflict is common in Yemen, there has been nothing like this in the capital for many years.

The Egyptian Chronicles blog has some photographs, but beware – they are very graphic.

The official news agency, meanwhile, in the old Soviet tradition, is reporting mass rallies around the country backing President Salih.

Possibly the regime was hoping that with eyes turned on Libya this would escape attention, but the US has condemned the violence in no uncertain terms.

A statement from President Obama said:

"I strongly condemn the violence that has taken place in Yemen today and call on President Saleh to adhere to his public pledge to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully.

"Those responsible for today's violence must be held accountable.

"The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and assembly, as well as political change that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people.

"It is more important than ever for all sides to participate in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people."

The situation in Yemen is looking increasingly insoluble. The problem is not merely how to get rid of Salih but what will happen after he goes. The longer he clings on, the more difficult it will be to achieve a peaceful transition – and it may even be too late for that already.

UPDATE, 19 March: Human Rights Watch has issued a statement about the killings, calling for an immediate suspension of military aid to Yemen.

Revolutionary updates: 21 March

Blog post, 21 March 2011


Following the massacre of demonstrators on Friday and the declaration of a 30-day state of emergency, President Salih dismissed his cabinet (though he has asked members to stay on until a new government can be appointed). This brings to mind the old quip about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

The Yemen Observer suggests this is a step towards forming a national unity government – allegedly in reponse to Saudi-led mediation (!). If so, the question now is how many opposition figures will be willing to help Salih by becoming ministers in his hour of need.

Dismissing the government could also be a move to forestall any further resignations. In a separate article, the Yemen Observer says "Politicians and academics are continuing to turn their backs on the ruling General People's Congress." The human rights minister, Huda al-Ban, resigned at the weekend – the third minister to do so since protests escalated last month. The Yemen Times has more on the resignations.

Yemen needs balance, not another strongman

Comment is free, 21 March 2011

The 32-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared almost at an end on Monday as erstwhile stalwarts of his regime queued up to desert him and announce they were joining the opposition.

The writing had been on the wall since Friday, when 52 protesters in the capital were massacred by Saleh loyalists. Even by the violent standards of Yemeni politics, this was viewed by many as a shocking and unacceptable development.

A trickle of high-level resignations over the last few weeks turned to a flood  on Monday when the president's kinsman, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, announced he was switching sides.

Ali Muhsin's defection was the real tipping point. Because of his position in the military, it effectively means the end of the Saleh regime.

Whether that is grounds for celebration is another matter, since almost no one has a good word to say about Ali Muhsin. There were times when President Saleh used to frighten his critics by reminding them that if they didn't like him they could always have Ali Muhsin instead.

In the past, Ali Muhsin has had questionable dealings with Yemeni jihadists, as well as the Houthi rebels in the north of the country. In 1998, for example, when the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan (linked to al-Qaida) kidnapped a group of western tourists, one of the first phone calls made by the kidnappers' leader was to Ali Muhsin.

Questions were also asked about Ali Muhsin's role in the government's war against the Houthi rebels. In a Chatham House paper last year, Ginny Hill wrote:

"The government's military campaign is conducted by army commander and Salafi convert Ali Muhsin, a Sanhan kinsman of the president who is widely expected to play a powerful role as kingmaker during a future succession.

"Rumours abound of rivalry between Ali Muhsin and President Saleh's son Ahmed, whose Republican Guard has also deployed in Sa'dah [the seat of the Houthi rebellion]. Several Yemeni newspapers have claimed there is a proxy war between the two men's forces, under the cover of quashing the Houthis.

"Given this previous rivalry between Ali Muhsin and Ahmed Saleh, the president's son, an important question is what position Ahmed will adopt. Will he use his own forces to defend his father against those of Ali Muhsin?"

In Egypt, during the overthrow of President Mubarak, it was possible to view the military as a (comparatively) benign force managing the transition, but it is much more difficult to take a similar view of the military in Yemen.

It is certainly possible that Ali Muhsin will lay claim to the Yemeni revolution and in the process try to establish himself as the country's new strongman. He may be supported in that by those who fear turmoil as a result of ousting Saleh.

On the other hand, though there's little doubt about Ali Muhsin's ambitions, he is not the only powerful player in Yemen. Apart from the political parties, there are the tribes, the southern movement (which has been demanding secession) and the Houthis in the north who have their own grievances.

The need in the current situation is to achieve some sort of collaborative balance among all these competing elements, rather than another period of domination by a single figure at the top.

Yemen: military manoeuvres

Blog post, 22 March 2011

In Yemen, Monday began with what appeared to be an attempted coup by the president's kinsman, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar who announced that he was siding with the protesters – and tanks duly appeared on the streets of Sana'a.

Since Ali Muhsin is the person Yemenis (including President Salih) probably fear the most and is a prime example of all that is wrong with the regime, his decision to support the popular struggle was a mixed blessing. Meanwhile, troops loyal to Ahmed Salih, the president's son, took up positions around the palace – apparently to protect Salih from Ali Muhsin's forces.

During the course of the day, large numbers of military officers, officials and Yemeni diplomats based abroad – having seen which way the wind was blowing – jumped ship and withdrew their support from Salih.

However, a Yemeni diplomat in Washington later told al-Jazeera this did not necessarily mean they were joining the opposition:

"What's going on in Yemen is not about opposition parties. It's about those young people in the university, militants, and a lot of people so the opposition is not the one who's leading this. It's a national movement, it's everybody protesting and we've joined that.

"I'm still in my office, I'm doing my job because we're serving the Yemeni people. Yes, we are representing the government but at the same time we're representing Yemeni people. The government of Yemen changes from time to time but the diplomatic corps are still there."

Despite all that, defence minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed (who had been formally dismissed by Salih along with the rest of the government at the weekend) claimed that the military remained loyal to the president.

The foreign minister also made a hasty trip to Saudi Arabia, carrying a letter from Salih.

It is unclear at present whether Salih is still seeking to cling on or trying to negotiate a dignified departure with an orderly transition. Either way, the Saudis seem to be heavily involved behind the scenes and perhaps acting partly on behalf of the United States.

This may be the reason why Salih is not gone already: there are hints that the Saudis may want him to stay, while the US – if not actually wanting to keep him in power – is worried about the future without him. There are still those in the US who regard Salih as an important ally against al-Qaeda, not fully appreciating that he is a very tricky customer, as the WikiLeaks documents demonstrated (here and here).

This morning, al-Jazeera is reporting that its offices in Sana'a were attacked by gunmen who fled with some equipment.

There are also posts on Twitter saying that a deal has been reached overnight between Ali Muhsin and the president. At the time of writing there is no indication as to the nature of this deal.

Yemen: Why Salih must go now

Blog post, 23 March 2011

As turmoil continued in Yemen yesterday, President Salih offered to step down by January next year after organising new parliamentary elections. The opposition has rejected this – and rightly so. He should go immediately.

Tying his departure to elections would provide Salih with an excuse to cling on beyond January, on the grounds that elections could not be organised in time. The elections that were due next month have already been delayed by two years and on March 10 they were postponed again – allegedly because the electoral registers were not ready.

There is no good reason why elections have to be conducted with Salih manipulating them from the driving seat, and there are plenty of reasons why he should not be around when they occur. A presidential aide quoted by al-Jazeera yesterday said: "Ali Abdullah Salih will not leave without knowing who he is handing over to." In other words, he wants to stay in power in order to shape the elections' outcome.

Salih has also invoked the scaremongering argument used earlier by Mubarak in Egypt: "Après moi le déluge". He warned yesterday of a bloody civil war if he is forced out of office. There may well be trouble after he goes, but there will be serious trouble too if he stays. It is already happening and the longer he remains in power the worse it is likely to get.

The United States, meanwhile, is still reluctant to abandon Salih. Without declaring support for him, it continues to fret about "instability" and yesterday defence secretary Robert Gates refused to be drawn on whether the Yemeni president should step down immediately. "I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen," he said.

Short-sightedly, US policy towards Yemen continues to be shaped by concerns about terrorism, and very little else. The US media perpetuates this by continuing to portray Salih as some kind of bulwark against al-Qaeda. The latest example came yesterday from the  Washington Post:

"According to news wire reports and Internet postings by Yemenis, Saleh’s army repelled an attack by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on a military position east of Lawdar, a city in the southern part of the country, killing 12 militants and injuring five."

The fact of the matter is that Salih has a vested interest in claiming victories against al-Qaeda but not in actually defeating it. The continuation of militant activity in Yemen is what he relies on for international support.

Following his declaration of a state of emergency at the weekend, Salih is now seeking to legitimise it through an act of parliament. The text of the draft emergency law has been published (in Arabic) on al-Masdar's website. It provisions are truly draconian, restricting all forms of media, travel and public meetings, even regulating the opening of shops and allowing for the "temporary takeover" of property.

Revolutionary updates: 24 March

Blog post, 24 March 2011


President Salih's new emergency law was rushed through the Yemeni parliament on Wednesday. There are disputes as to whether the session – which had been boycotted by the opposition – was quorate. Parliamentary officials said 164 members were present and all but four of them voted in favour of the measure. The opposition Islah party said only 133 attended. For a vote to be valid, at least 151 of the 301 members must be present.

The effect of the emergency law is to suspend the constitution, allow media censorship, ban street demonstrations and give far-reaching powers to the security forces.

Human Rights Watch has issued a statement pointing out that the emergency law does not override the government's obligation to respect fundamental human rights under international law.

"Emergency laws are no excuse to use unlawful force to quash peaceful protests," a spokesman for HRW said. "The world is watching to see whether President Saleh will respect the basic rights of his citizens."

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that the authorities have closed down al-Jazeera's bureau in Sana'a – a day after its offices were raided by armed men. On Saturday, two al-Jazeera correspondents were deported after the information ministry accused them of "professional infractions during their coverage of the current events in Yemen".

Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, has written for the CNN blog under the headline "Yemeni President Saleh should go now". His article makes some additional points to those I made here  on Wednesday.

He argues (as I did too) that Salih's early departure would not necessarily bring a cataclysm to Yemen:

"I, for one, believe that the Yemeni situation is more likely to improve if Saleh leaves office now. While Yemen has been afflicted with many conflicts, it also has a strong tradition of successful internal conflict resolution – as occurred at the end of the 1962-70 North Yemeni civil war and the elaborate agreements on unification between north and south that resulted in unification in 1990 (and which Saleh subsequently reneged on).

"Among other things, Yemenis know better than anyone else just how well armed their fellow citizens are, and thus know how futile engaging in a civil war would be.

"Without Saleh and his constant machinations to keep them isolated them from America and the west, Yemenis would have much greater prospects for exercising their conflict resolution skills ...

"America and the west need to realise that the conflicts in Yemen are mainly over local concerns. Encouraging and enabling Yemenis to resolve them on their own (as they have in the past) is the best way America can make sure that the role of Iran and al-Qaeda remain limited in Yemen."

Revolutionary updates, 27 March

Blog post, 27 March 2011


There seems to be general agreement in Yemen, even by the president himself, that Ali Abdullah Salih is on the way out. The question is when.

Talks on Saturday to negotiate his departure proved inconclusive but there was a brief flurry of excitement later when Salih said he could leave power "in a few hours" if allowed to do so with "respect and prestige". At the same time, though, he appears determined to stick around long enough to achieve a "peaceful" handover (by which he probably means influencing the decision as to who will take over – which is not necessarily a good thing).

Today, he is said to be meeting the ruling party for "crisis talks".

Again, some irritating attitudes continue to appear in the media coverage. Reuters, for example, persists in saying that "Saleh has been a key ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia in keeping at bay a Yemen-based resurgent wing of al-Qaeda."

That is questionable, at best. Salih has been an ally of sorts, but a difficult and sometimes mendacious one – as the Wikileaks documents (here and here) showed – and he will be no great loss.

Organised chaos in Yemen

Blog post, 29 March 2011

More than 100 people are reported dead following an explosion at a munitions factory in southern Yemen on Monday . The Financial Times says:

According to a resident of the area, the explosion took place when local people swarmed into the building to steal ammunition, after government security forces withdrew from the town of Jaar in the province of Abyan.

Armed actors, said by some to be Islamist militants, and others to be tribesmen, reportedly clashed with the army in Jaar on Sunday.

Following the breakdown of talks about his departure at the weekend, President Salih has hardened his line, saying there will be no more concessions and apparently reverting to the position that he will stay in office until 2013 when his presidential term officially ends.

The withdrawal of security forces which led to the tragedy in Jaar seems to be part of a ploy by Salih to encourage chaos in certain areas of the country – even attacks by militants connected to al-Qaeda – as a way of demonstrating (especially to the Americans) that Yemen needs him. However, the ploy is so transparent that even the US, which has so far been reluctant to see Salih go, may find it a bit too much to swallow.

According to Arab News, the regime has now "lost its grip" (or given it up) in at least four provinces: Saada and al-Jawf in the north, and Abyan and Shabwa in the south:

In the northern province of Saada, Houthi rebels seized control of the province following clashes with local tribes, a resident told Arab News. The rebels now run government facilities and control checkpoints. Residents approved Faris Manna, a notorious arms dealer, as replacement for the governor who has fled to the capital. Police deserted their posts and relocated themselves to army camps.

In Shabwa, armed men from Southern Movement attacked and looted Central Security camps. They are now in full control of four major districts including Nessab, Al-Saaed, Haban and Maevaa, a local journalist told Arab News by telephone. The government’s writ runs only in Ataq, the capital of the province, and another district, Bayhan.

The Norwegian daily, Aftenposten, is suggesting that President Salih tried to trick Saudi forces into killing his kinsman, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, who recently sided with the opposition. Ali Muhsin has long been regarded as a potential challenger for power.

The incident happened late in 2009 or early in 2010 when the Saudi air force was bombing the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen.

A cable from the US embassy in Riyadh, published by Wikileaks, describes a conversation with Prince Khaled, the assistant defence minister of Saudi Arabia. The cable says:

Prince Khaled also reported that the Saudis had problems with some of the targeting recommendations received from the Yemeni side.

For instance, there was one occasion when Saudi pilots aborted a strike, when they sensed something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis. It turned out that the site recommended to be hit was the headquarters of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, the Yemeni northern area military commander, who is regarded as a political opponent to President Saleh.

This incident prompted the Saudis to be more cautious about targeting recommendations from the Yemeni government.

US ready to abandon Salih

Blog post, 4 April 2011

The United States has quietly shifted its position regarding the embattled Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Salih, and has concluded that he must be eased out out office, according to a report in the New York Times which is attributed to unnamed American and Yemeni officials.

The paper says that while American officials have not publicly pressed Salih to go, "they have told allies that they now view his hold on office as untenable".

Until now (as I wroteherelast month), the US has been fearful of what might follow if Salih is forced out of office. However, it now seems to accept that the conflict between president and protesters "has had a direct adverse impact on the security situation".

The situation worsened last week when it appeared that Saleh was actually encouraging chaos in a transparent attempt to show that the country still needed him.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties have come up with a five-point plan for a transition of power.

There was more violence on Sunday in Ta'izz, where as many as 10 people are reported dead. Trouble was also reported in Hodeida early on Monday.

Yemen: The GCC steps in

Blog post, 6 April 2011

President Salih has accepted an offer from the Gulf Cooperation Council to hold talks between himself and the Yemeni opposition in Saudi Arabia.

Opposition parties seem less enthusiastic about the idea – not surprisingly since three of the six GCC members (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman) have been actively trying to suppress opposition movements on their own territories.

Although Saudi Arabia – like the United States – now appears to have concluded that Salih's regime cannot be salvaged, it is probably hoping to manipulate the transition in ways that are favourable to GCC and American interests, as well as minimising any knock-on effects for the kingdom.

Writing in the Lebanese Daily Star, Mai Yamani says:

"The reality is that the United States has known for weeks that it cannot save Saleh’s regime. Its concern for Saleh’s political survival is closely linked to its guardianship of the Saudi regime, which fears that ferment in Yemen could give Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite, Zaidi, and Ismaili populations dangerous ideas about democratic reform – if not threaten the very existence of the Saudi state. After all, Saudi Arabia’s southern tribes and Yemen’s northern tribes are historically the same people, while the Shiites in the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province are protesting in political harmony with the Shiites of Bahrain.

"Not surprisingly, Saleh has tried to reach for the familiar Saudi lifeline, sending his foreign minister to Riyadh to plead for the sort of help the Saudi king provided to Bahrain. But the Saudis, having backed Saleh financially, and having sent troops to Yemen in 2009 to help him wage a war against the Houthis, now consider him beyond saving. Instead, they are betting on potential new alliances within Yemen to deal with events in the unpredictable neighboring country."

Yemen's president edges towards the door

Blog post, 24 April 2011

Yemen is slowly edging towards a negotiated departure for President Ali Abdullah Salih. The latest proposal put forward by negotiators from the Gulf Cooperation Council appears to have been accepted in principle by Salih and to a large extent by opposition parties – though they still have reservations about it.

Under the plan, the first step would be for parliament to grant immunity from prosecution for Salih, his family and his associates.

Salih would resign within 30 days and hand over to his vice-president, Abd al-Rab Mansur Hadi.

A transitional government would be formed, including representatives from the opposition.

A presidential election would be held within 60 days and the new president would supervise the drafting of a new constitution.

Not surprisingly, opposition parties are unhappy about granting immunity and many of the protesters on the streets simply refuse to contemplate the idea. This seems to be the main stumbling block at present.

There are also fears that Salih could try to find a way of staying on: postponing his resignation by 30 days seems unnecessary and it might give him some opportunity to wriggle out of the deal. Once immunity had been formally granted there would be no real excuse for him to remain in power any longer.

One possible snag is that his resignation would have to be submitted to parliament, where his party has an overwhelming majority, and there is no guarantee that the members would accept it.

Another problem is that under the current plan the new government would be formed within seven days of a deal being signed – in other words, while Salih is still president. This would give him considerable influence over the transition.

There is no mention in the plan of a dissolution of parliament and so, amid the talk about drafting a new constitution, it seems that parliamentary elections will have to wait. While there is some sense in holding the next elections under a new constitution (with a new electoral law too), the effect in the meantime is that Salih's party, the General People's Congress, will continue to control parliament where it won 238 seats out of 301 in the 2003 election. This could make it much more difficult to dismantle the remains of Salih's regime if/when the president goes.

The parliamentary term is six years. In 2009 the next elections were postponed for a further two years and were actually due to be held this week, on April 27, but in March they were postponed again, supposedly because the electoral registers were not ready.

Yemen: a transition to what?

Blog post, 30 April 2011

The Yemeni "transition" agreement brokered by Gulf Cooperation Council states is due to be formally signed on Monday by the ruling party and opposition parties, but there is a lot that could go wrong.

It is reported that President Saleh will not attend the signing ceremony in Riyadh (presumably because he does not want to risk leaving the country), so he will sign it separately beforehand – and only in his capacity as head of his party, the General People's Congress, and not in his presidential capacity. Abdel-Karim al-Iryani, the party's vice-president, will then go to Riyadh for the signing.

Saleh has also threatened to call off the deal if Qatar – one of the six GCC members – attends the ceremony. He accused Qatar of conspiring against Yemen and "inciting and financing chaos" in the country.

None of this augurs well for the success of the agreement. Levels of distrust are high on all sides and it could easily fall apart.

This is very reminiscent of the antics in 1994 that surrounded the signing of the ill-fated Document of Pledge and Accord and led, just a few months later, to a war between north and south.

The terms of the transition agreement are very unsatisfactory. They seem to have been shaped by the fears of GCC states (and the US in the background) over what might happen once Saleh goes, rather than the actual needs of Yemen at the moment. It is more about preserving continuity and stability than making a clean break with the past. For that reason it's questionable whether what is happening in Yemen can accurately be described at this stage as a revolution, even if the agreement holds long enough to see Saleh to step down.

The first step after the signing is supposed to be a parliamentary vote granting immunity from prosecution to Saleh, his family and associates. This is proving extremely unpopular inside Yemen, though opposition parties seem to have been persuaded to accept it. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both criticised the immunity deal, with the latter warning that Saleh "cannot use his promised immunity from prosecution as a carte blanche to tolerate attacks on peaceful protesters".

Saleh is then supposed to tender his resignation to parliament and leave office within 30 days. There are suggestions that parliament (where Saleh's party has an overwhelming majority) may reject his resignation. If that happens, under the constitution, the president may re-submit his resignation within three months and parliament is obliged to accept it. (it is not clear if the transition agreement requires him to re-submit it in the event that it is rejected the first time.)

The strung-out 30-day resignation period in the agreement is another potential stumbling block. It appears that during this period the street protests are supposed to cease – though they are unlikely to do so. The protesters, with good reason, don't trust Saleh and Saleh might well use continuing protests to claim that the country still needs him to save it from "chaos".

However, the US seems to have fallen for the idea that quiet on the streets will induce Saleh to go. Its embassy in Sana'a issued a statement hailing the "historic agreement" and urging Yemeni citizens "to demonstrate their commitment to this peaceful transition by avoiding all provocative demonstrations, marches, and speeches in the coming days and to welcome this opportunity to lay the foundation of a strong, peaceful, prosperous Yemen for the future."

Politically, the deal is that Vice-President Hadi would take over as acting president and a new government would be formed, 50% from the ruling party and 50% from opposition parties. Saleh would choose a new prime minister from among the opposition.

Arguments about the composition of this new government could cause further problems and, even if the agreement survives, the timetable for holding a new presidential election, re-drafting the constitution and the fresh parliamentary elections seems hopelessly unrealistic. But the over-riding question is whether the new regime that eventually emerges will be significantly different in character from the old one.

UPDATE, 30 April, evening: The BBC is reporting that today Saleh did not sign the agreement as had been expected. He apparently has "reservations" about it.

Saleh quibbles over Yemen transition

Blog post, 1 May 2011

The Yemeni "transition" agreement negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council is falling apart even sooner than expected. Fearing a coup in his absence, President Saleh is refusing to go to Riyadh with opposition parties for the signing ceremony.

On Saturday, he was visited in Sana'a by Abdullatif al-Zayani, secretary-general of the GCC, who was seeking to persuade him. But according to CNN the meeting was cut short and Zayani "appeared visibly angry as he passed reporters and refused to answer questions en route to his plane." (The Yemen Times says the meeting never even began, because Saleh refused to see Zayani in person and sent representatives instead.)

Saleh is apparently still saying he will sign it, but only in Sana'a and only in his capacity as head of Yemen's ruling party, not as head of state.

This might seem a technical point, but the agreement is meant to provide a mechanism for Saleh's departure from the presidency, not from his party, and his quibbling about signatures is a further sign that he is looking for any excuse to wriggle out.

This is embarrassing for the GCC, though they don't deserve much sympathy for putting forward such a wretched deal  in the first place. It's also embarrassing for the US, which had hailed the agreement  as "historic" and urged the protesters on the streets to calm down.

Even if Saleh can be cajoled into signing during the next few days, it's already very clear that Saleh has no intention of seeing the agreement implemented – so it's better to let it fail now than to string out the process.

With luck, the US and other countries will finally realise that the deal was never going to work and that some serious diplomatic pressure is needed to tell Saleh to stop killing protesters – and leave.

Yemen 'transition' deal is a non-starter

Blog post, 2 May 2011

The Gulf Cooperation Council said on Sunday that it will send  its secretary-general, Abdul-Latif al-Zayani, back to Yemen for more talks following the aborted mission on Saturday when he was publicly snubbed by President Saleh.

Saleh has been refusing to sign a "transition" agreement negotiated by the GCC (with American and EU backing) which would involve him stepping down eventually in return for immunity from prosecution.

It is to be hoped that the GCC will not waste much more time over this, because the sooner the agreement is abandoned, the better it will be for everyone.

As it stands, the agreement is virtually unworkable and Saleh is now adding all sorts of conditions which cannot be met – thus providing a pretext for him to stay in power.

Saleh's re-interpretation of the plan, according to the ruling party's newspaper, is that once a national unity government has been appointed, "sit-ins, marches and rebellion" must cease and "elements causing the crisis" must leave the country (plus various other things) before implementation of the agreement can proceed further. These are impossible demands, since basically they require a state of tranquillity that Yemen has not seen for years.

All this prevarication is extremely damaging to Yemen. Aside from the issue of Saleh's presidency, the country faces multiple crises needing urgent attention – not least of them the provision of adequate food and water – and the international Friends of Yemen group, set up last year to provide aid, is currently in limbo.

It has reached the stage where none of these other problems can be tackled properly while Saleh remains in power. The US and the GCC countries are understandably worried about what will happen after Saleh goes, but those fears have probably been exaggerated and the longer the current turmoil continues the more difficult it will be to manage the aftermath.

It's time for the US and others to grasp the nettle and tell Saleh they are not going to work with him any longer and that for the sake of his country he should go – now.

Gaddafi, Assad or Salih: who will go first?

Blog post, 13 May 2011

Following the comparatively swift exits of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, we now have three Arab leaders who face serious challenges to their power but are proving more much difficult to dislodge: Gaddafi in Libya, Salih in Yemen and Assad in Syria. Which of them, I wonder will be the next to go – and when?

The Syrian uprising is the most recent – it began in the middle of March – and my gut feeling is that it will not succeed quickly. The Assad regime could easily survive into next year, if not for longer, though it is unlikely ever to recover from the blow to its authority.

"The regime will dig in its heels and fight to the end," Joshua Landis writes on his blog. But he continues:

"The Syrian opposition has successfully established a culture of resistance that is widespread in Syria and will not be eliminated. Even if demonstrations can be shut down for the time being, the opposition will not be defeated. Syria’s youth, long apolitical and apathetic, is now politicised, mobilised, and passionate. All the same, the opposition remains divided and leaderless, which presents great dangers for a post-Assad Syria."

In Yemen, where protests directed specifically against the president began during the second half of January, Salih has been playing his usual wily game. he has already agreed to go, but he keeps finding reasons why he should stay a bit longer. Protected by his Republican Guard, he seems to have decided that street protests alone – even if millions take part in them – are not going to dislodge him.

This has led to many predictions that the result will be armed conflict. But there is also a possibility that the economy will bring him down.

The Chinese news agency, Xinhua, has a grim report today which quotes the Yemeni oil minister as saying economic collapse is "imminent".

The report says Yemen's oil production "has been halved in recent weeks after producers pulled out their staff and halted output, which led to the closure of the country's sole refinery in Aden".

The minister, Amir Salim al-Aydarus, blamed this mainly on "sabotage", though he also acknowledged the role played by "political deadlock".

"The sabotage and destruction by outlaws on oil and gas pipelines as well as electricity lines exacerbated the economic situation," Aydarus is reported as saying. "If the problem persists, the government will be unable to meet the minimum needs of the citizens. The situation will pose a catastrophe beyond imagination."

In Libya, where the rebellion began in mid-February, there has been much talk of a prolonged stalemate – though I'm sceptical about that. Judging by recent reports, the rebels are gradually consolidating their position while the Gaddafi regime is being slowly worn down by the Nato bombing and other factors. When the time comes, it could collapse quite suddenly.

The course of events in Libya is now largely in the hands of outside forces, unlike Syria and, to a lesser extent, Yemen (where the GCC countries are involved diplomatically), and my reading of the situation is that western powers are in no great hurry to see Gaddafi go. After more than 40 years in power, another few months is neither here nor there, so it's better to keep him pinned down in Tripoli until the rebels have properly got their act together and are capable of running the show.

One way or another, all three regimes – in Libya, Yemen and Syria – are on the slide. In any of these countries, unforeseen events such as assassination or a coup could hasten their demise but as things stand at the moment it looks like a toss-up as to whether Salih or Gaddafi will be the first to go.

Renewed pressure on Yemeni president

Blog post, 14 May 2011

President Saleh came under renewed pressure on Friday to accept the Yemen "transition" plan proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The US and several EU countries have now declared their backing for the plan. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Friday:

"We call on the parties to sign and implement the terms of the agreement now to ensure an orderly, peaceful transition of power.

"This transition must begin immediately in order for the Yemeni people to realise their aspirations for a brighter and more prosperous future."

Saleh had been expected to sign the agreement – which requires his resignation – at the end of April but he prevaricated at the last minute. Given the additional western pressure now, the withdrawal of Qatar from the mediation process (whose involvement Saleh had been objecting to) and reports of a rapidly worsening economic situation inside Yemen, he may be finally induced to sign.

The "transition" plan itself leaves a lot to be desired (see previous blog post) and provides considerable scope for Saleh to further delay his departure.

Controversially, the plan also includes granting Saleh immunity from prosecution. On Thursday, Human Right Watch issued
another statementobjecting to immunity "in light of repeated, lethal attacks by his security forces on peaceful protesters".

Yemen: a fresh start or more of the same?

Blog post, 22 May 2011

Today is the 21st birthday of the Republic of Yemen, formed when the separate northern and southern states agreed to merge. May 1990 was a brief moment of hope in Yemen's history. Newspapers and new political parties proliferated, unhampered by government restrictions, and shortly afterwards Yemen became the first country in the Arabian pensinsula to hold competitive elections under universal suffrage.

Needless to say, those early hopes were not fulfilled. Politics aside, Yemen today is on the brink of becoming a failed state and its economic predicament is dire. By no means all of Yemen's problems can be laid at the door of President Saleh – even at the best of times it is a difficult country to govern – but many of them can. During the last few years especially, he has become increasingly domineering and more focused on clinging to power than on governing properly. Even if he served a useful purpose at one time, he clearly doesn't now.

On Saturday, opposition parties signed the "transition" deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council which provides for Saleh's departure, and there are expectations that Saleh himself will sign it today.

Saleh has balked at signing once before but this time, under pressure from the US, it seems likely that he will do so, despite his wild protestations that the result will be a takeover by al-Qaeda. There also seems to be sufficient international pressure now to ensure that once he has signed he will have to go through with his resignation; he will not be able to wriggle out of it as he had probably hoped.

Apart from the disgraceful inclusion of immunity from prosecution in the GCC deal, the most contentious issue is whether Saleh's resignation on GCC terms will actually amount to regime change. Protesters on the streets are accusing the official opposition of betrayal and on Twitter the deal has been described as "a coup for Saudi Arabia".

There is a lot to be said for that view. The Saudi-dominated GCC, while accepting that Saleh must go, is determined to ensure that it happens with minimal upheaval – and without drastic changes in the way the country is run it is difficult to see how Yemen's problems can be seriously tackled.

UPDATE,10.00 BST, 22 May: Tweets from Yemen say Saleh is prevaricating again. Apparently he will not sign unless opposition parties come to the palace and sign again in his presence. The opposition parties are refusing, since they have already signed.

Saleh's antics at this stage will not do him any good. They are simply going to annoy the GCC and the US, leading to more international pressure for him to go.

Saleh's childish antics

Blog post, 23 May 2011

Despite intense diplomatic pressure from the Gulf Cooperation Council, the United States and the EU, and despite verbal undertakings that he would finally sign the Yemen "transition" deal, President Saleh battled through Sunday without letting his pen touch the paper.

Instead, he brought his own thugs and supporters on to the streets to protest against the agreement. Roads were blocked, citizens were intimidated by armed men and a number of foreign ambassadors, including those of the US and Britain, were temporarily beseiged by a mob at the UAE embassy. When it became clear that Saleh was not going to sign, the GCC's mediator flew back to Riyadh empty-handed – for a second time.

Meanwhile, Saleh insisted that he would only sign the document if opposition parties came to his palace to sign it in his presence (they had already signed it, very publicly, the day before). Saleh then made a speech suggesting that the result of this impasse could be civil war – and if that happened it would be the fault of the opposition parties.

The next moves are anybody's guess, but the childish presidential antics on Sunday demonstrated – very visibly – that Saleh cannot be trusted and further diplomatic efforts will have to proceed on that basis. It is to be hoped that there will be no more attempts to salvage the "transition" plan. The idea of a phased resignation process for Saleh always looked unworkable and he has demonstrated beyond any doubt that he has no intention of going through with it.

It is also obvious that the longer he stays in office the worse the situation in Yemen is likely to get, and diplomatic processes should now be re-focused towards securing his immediate departure.

Yemen on the brink of catastrophe

Blog post, 25 May 2011

Battles between Yemen's most powerful tribal group and sections of the military have resumed in Sana'a this morning, and tribal fighters appear to control part of the capital, including the interior ministry building.

Tom Finn, who is on the spot, reported yesterday's events for the Guardian. Jane Novak, on the Armies of Liberation blog, adds some more details.

The picture is still very confused and a lot of unconfirmed and probably unreliable information is circulating on Twitter. It is beyond any doubt, though, that the situation in Yemen is now extremely grave.

After refusing to sign the GCC's "transition agreement" on Sunday (which required him to step down), President Saleh warned of civil war and now seems bent on fulfilling his prophecy.

It is difficult to imagine what Saleh's game plan might be – assuming that he has one. Viewed from outside, his chances of re-establishing his authority and restoring order are virtually nil, so we may simply be watching the flailings of a desperate man.

Alternatively, he may be hoping to persuade Yemenis that he is the only person who can save them from catastrophe (a catastrophe, incidentally, that is largely of his own making). Whether they will buy that, after all that has happened, remains to be seen. If they don't, the turmoil could be bloody and prolonged.

Yemen: will Saudis intervene?

Blog post, 26 May 2011

Fighting has resumed in the Yemeni capital this morning. A report in today's Guardian describes the scenes in Sana'a yesterday and Gregory Johnsen has an excellent analysis of events there over the last few days.

The US has now ordered non-essential diplomatic staff to leave the country and yesterday President Obama urged President Saleh to "move immediately on his commitment to transfer power".

The ability of the US to influence events in Yemen at this stage is rather limited but one Yemen expert suggests it is only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia intervenes. Khaled Fattah, a researcher at St Andrews University said:

"Riyadh will not keep watching for long. They have their own network with tribal leaders in Yemen. The next step will be strong intervention from Riyadh to defuse the tension... They will interfere to [secure a] ceasefire and then the establishment of a council of tribal elders, senior military officers, and representatives of the southern movement.

"The Saudis are very keen to have their hands in the political kitchen of Sana'a. He [President Saleh] has reached the stage when he is unable to defuse the tension domestically and he [is causing more] headaches than before. So I think the Saudis will interfere in the coming few days.

"First there will be a ceasefire between the al-Ahmar family and the Republican guards and central armed forces. Then there will a resumption of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] initiative [for Saleh to stand down]. We are talking about days not weeks... I am simply aware that Riyadh will not tolerate such unrest to escalate."

Meanwhile, on the Armies of Liberation blog, Jane Novak outlines a 12-month programme for Yemen once Saleh leaves:

"The day after Saleh... Yemeni revolutionaries must begin the arduous work of building the civil democratic Yemen of their demands. Once the revolution has succeeded, it must be protected. One way is to disperse power at the local level...

"The re-balancing of power that is required is not among various groups and power players, but between the people and all their institutions. Self-determination on the national level can only be accomplished by empowerment on the local level."

The plan's emphasis on local action and public participation based on equal rights for all is exactly what Yemen will need. However, it is not an idea that will appeal much to Saudi Arabia, and if the Saudis do try to assume control of Yemen's politics the activists are likely have a continuing battle on their hands.

Yemen's military turn against Saleh

Blog post, 29 May 2011

President Saleh's position in Yemen was looking extremely precarious on Sunday amid signs that the military is beginning to turn against him.

The Associated Press reported that a brigade of the Republican Guard (commanded by Saleh's son, Ahmed) has defected to the opposition.

Meanwhile, posts on Twitter said Yemen's Military Council has issued a statement attacking Saleh. The council is apparently not in direct command of troops but its stance may have some influence on other sections of the army.

One of the top brass, General Abdullah Ali Elaiwah, reportedly accused the regime of misconduct in "handing over certain governorates to rogue elements". He also reportedly claimed that several of the regime's most senior politicians – the vice-president, the prime minister, two former prime ministers and the foreign minister – have advised Saleh to quit.

If that is true, it's hard to see Saleh surviving in office for more than a few days.

The military seem to be especially angry about the southern town of Zinjibar being taken over by militants who are alleged to be linked to al-Qaeda. They claim that Saleh deliberately allowed this to happen, presumably to reinforce his prediction that the same will happen to the rest of the country if he leaves. If that was the president's ploy, it seems to have backfired badly.

The military's claim is supported independently by a report from CNN which says that security forces "abandoned" Zinjibar without resisting the militants.

A resident quoted by CNN said: "They [the militants] suddenly arrived and in large numbers. There were no clashes when they arrived on Friday night. We tried to complain to security forces but could not find them."

Yemen: attack on president keeps observers guessing

Comment is free, 3 June 2011

I started this morning planning to write a general blog post about Yemen, but events took a dramatic turn this afternoon – and are still developing. Let's start with the official version. The presidential palace in Yemen was hit by shells on Friday.

Government sources said at first that President Saleh was unhurt and would be giving a news conference within an hour.

The news conference didn't happen and the new line seems to be that the president has been slightly injured and is now in hospital.

At present, there is no way of knowing if this is true. Being taken to hospital could explain why Saleh hasn't given the promised news conference. So would being killed. We can't be absolutely sure that Saleh is still alive until he is seen on television talking about what happened.

If he were dead, Yemeni officials wouldn't necessarily say so until the resulting power vacuum had been filled. Similarly, if his injuries were serious, officials might still be expected to describe them as slight.

The only thing we can be sure of is that he is not uninjured – otherwise he would have been on television by now, describing his escape. Saying that he is in hospital provides the regime with a sort of holding position which in due course will allow for him to either recover or get worse.

So, what does this mean for the Yemeni uprising?

In what might be the best scenario for Yemen's future, Saleh would be seriously injured but not dead. In fact, sufficiently injured for the doctors to decide that he needs urgent treatment abroad.

Flying him out of the country for medical reasons would provide a near-perfect exit from the crisis. The vice-president could take over and Yemen could begin to calm down. It's unlikely that anyone would want Saleh back if or when he recovered.

Probably the worst scenario would be a lightly-wounded president who returns to the fray within a day or two, with renewed ferocity, to wreak his revenge.

The least predictable scenario would be if Saleh has actually been killed. In theory, his vice-president should step into the breach while new elections are arranged, but there would also be a possibility of a power struggle behind the scenes if his death were concealed for long.

Whichever of these turns out to be correct, Yemen badly needs a solution soon. It's not just the violence – which hopefully will subside once Saleh goes – but the impending economic collapse. Whatever happens on the political front, the repercussions of that will be felt for years to come.

Shops and restaurants are closing, queues for petrol are lengthening, electricity supplies are erratic and people are hoarding basic supplies (including even water) according to areport in the New York Times.

Nobody is quite sure how much money the country and its government still have left. Tax collection has come more or less to a halt. Saleh, who needs to continue paying his supporters, is said to have been demanding multimillion dollar loans from Yemeni businessmen. Diplomats have also been enquiring about rumours that he has raided the coffers of the Central Bank.

Saleh is gone. What next for Yemen?

Comment is free, 5 June 2011

With the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, Yemenis now have a chance to resolve the political crisis that has bedevilled the country since February.

Contrary to the official story that he merely suffered scratches and/or a slight head wound in the explosion on Friday, latest reports say he has second-degree burns to his face and chest, plus a piece of shrapnel lodged near his heart which is affecting his breathing – though Saleh, who is 69, is said to have been able to walk from the plane when he landed in Riyadh.

A second plane followed him, reportedly carrying 24 members of his family. This is one indication that to all intents and purposes the Saleh era is finished. He is unlikely ever to return to Yemen as president – and the Saudis and Americans will be working behind the scenes to ensure that he doesn't.

It's also worth mentioning that others injured by the explosion include the prime minister, deputy prime minister, the heads of both houses of parliament and the governor of Sana'a, the capital. Some of them have also been flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment. One of Saleh's nephews, the commander of the special forces, is said to have been killed. So, even discounting Saleh himself, what's left of his regime is in serious disarray.

Given the desperate plight that Yemen is in, this offers the best prospect of a way forward for the country (as I suggested in an article on Friday). There is now a fair chance that the armed conflict will subside. It's by no means certain – and Yemen is never totally conflict-free – but the prospects for relative calm are a lot better now than they would have been if Saleh remained in Sana'a battling to cling on to power.

Secondly, work can begin on the political transition, drawing on some elements from the plan negotiated earlier by the Gulf Cooperation Council – the one that Saleh, after agreeing to it verbally, refused at the last minute to sign.

Apart from the lack of a signature from Saleh, there were two major problems with the plan which made it look unworkable at the time, though both of them are now somewhat academic.

One was that parliament had to grant Saleh immunity from prosecution before he would budge. This condition had been grudgingly accepted by Yemen's official opposition parties, though the protesters on the streets, together with international human rights organisations, found it abhorrent. With Saleh now out of the country, it need no longer be a bone of contention.

The second major hurdle in the GCC's plan was that it envisaged a prolonged resignation/transition period. After being granted immunity, Saleh would tender his resignation to parliament – though the parliament, where Saleh's party has an overwhelming majority, had the power to reject it unless he submitted his resignation for a second time. Meanwhile, the plan envisaged that Saleh would continue in office, working with a new transitional government that included opposition parties.

Anyone familiar with Saleh's usual modus operandi could see that this would not work. He would use every means at his disposal to sabotage its implementation, and the plan itself allowed plenty of scope for him to do so.

Despite that, the broad aim of the GCC plan – to form a government of national unity and prepare for elections – was (and is) the only practicable way forward in the circumstances, especially in the light of international concerns about Yemen's instability. It is far from ideal, because even the recognised opposition politicians have been around for years, some of them are as corrupt as Saleh's chums, and they are mostly devoid of new ideas for tackling the country's multifarious problems.

The hope then, is that this will indeed be a short-term transition and that elections will eventually bring in some new blood that reflects the aspirations of the millions of Yemenis who have risked their lives for so long protesting on the streets.

So far, constitutional procedures seem to be taking their course, and it is to be hoped that Saleh's kinsman, Ali Muhsen al-Ahmar, and the powerful tribal leaders will allow that to happen by staying on the sidelines.

Vice-president Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, a Saleh appointee and a former military man from the south who is something of a nonentity, has temporarily taken charge as required by the constitution. As a next step, he should form a new government from across the political spectrum. Obviously Hadi's position is precarious in the light of the recent turmoil but for the time being at least he can count on international support – most importantly, from the US and Saudi Arabia.

The constitution specifies that presidential elections must be held within 60 days after Saleh resigns. Yemen is probably not ready for elections just yet but, since he is already out of the way, there is no immediate need for Saleh to formally resign.

It's certainly not going to be an easy ride and there's an awful lot that could still go wrong. But Saleh's departure for Riyadh does create an opportunity for a solution and Yemenis, together with their friends abroad, must seize the moment.

Medical intervention in Yemen

Blog post, 5 June 2011

On Friday, after hearing of the attack inside Yemen's presidential compound, I posted a tweet which said:

"Send Saleh abroad to be treated for his injuries. Problem solved."

That has now come to pass, but I doubt that it's a result of my suggestion on Twitter. It struck me at the time, though, that medicine has a history of intervening in the Middle East when politics falls short. It acts as a sort offorce majeure.

Perhaps the most famous example was the "medical coup" in Tunisia in 1987 when doctors certified President Bourguiba unfit for office and brought the unlamented Ben Ali to power.

In 1994, during the north-south war in Yemen, various politicians who didn't want to be allied too closely to either side rushed off abroad for medical treatment, most of them recovering as soon as the war ended.

The effectiveness of medical intervention in politics often hinges on the belief that treatment needs to be carried out abroad. There's a kind of orientalist suspicion that local hospitals may not be up to the job (which isn't necessarily true) but it's probably also a status thing.

For heads of state, who obviously want the best no matter where it may be found, there's the additional fear that local doctors might be politically unreliable and tempted to stick a scalpel in the wrong place while they are on the operating table – hence the need for foreigners.

It's hard to guess how long Saleh might need to be in hospital. Apart from a six-centimetre fragment lodged near his heart, which was being removed on Sunday, he is said to have second-degree burns to his face and chest. According to Wikipedia, second-degree burns should heal in two to three weeks unless there are complications, but presumably he could be discharged earlier than that.

Yemeni officials insist that Saleh is only temporarily indisposed and will be returning shortly to lead the country again. This may remain as their official line for a while, though their behaviour suggests a transition is already under way with the blessing and assistance of the US and Saudi Arabia.

I wrote an article for the Guardian earlier today about the probable way forward and won't repeat that here. However, an interesting question is how Saleh will be prevented from returning to Yemen if he does recover quickly. One factor which should not be underestimated is the dire state of the country's economy. It is going to need a massive injection of aid very shortly, and that gives the international community a lot of leverage over the future shape of Yemeni politics.