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Crafting Chaos: Presidential Games and Yemen's Escalating Violence

[Protester confronting regime forces. Image from] [Protester confronting regime forces. Image from]

I am sitting in the dark, having enjoyed a remarkable 6 consecutive hours of electricity today in our house near the “Square of Fear”, a roundabout in an affluent neighborhood of Sana’a that sits between the houses of General Ali Mohsen and Hamid al-Ahmar. The sounds of mortars, missiles and gunfire echo from across the city in al-Hasaba, where al-Jazeera will tell me tomorrow morning that 41 people were killed overnight. If we were to believe Yemen State Television and the Deputy Minister of Information, electricity outages and shortages of water, cooking gas, gasoline and diesel are to be blamed on Yemen’s opposition coalition of parties, the Joint Meeting of Parties (JMP), who apparently has “cut these services.” It seems like the regime is at a point where it cannot be fussed to produce some remotely plausible act to attribute to the JMP—which has no control over any of these services—just as the regime could not bother to dress in plainclothes the soldiers who decimated Freedom Square in Taiz, killed at least 57 protesters, went door to door arresting activist leaders who survived the massacre and are rumored to continue roaming the streets of Taiz in death squads. The regime’s attempts to disclaim responsibility for violence are becoming increasingly perfunctory. 

While chaos continues to unravel in governerates across Yemen, it is hard to believe that this isn’t all carefully choreographed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On May 22, the day of the 21th anniversary of unification between north and south Yemen, the nation waited expectantly for news that Saleh signed the GCC Initiative, providing for a “peaceful transition of power.” The US, EU and GCC ambassadors were held hostage at the UAE embassy by dozens of armed balatija (pro-Saleh plainclothes thugs) who surrounded the embassy chanting slogans against the GCC Initiative and threats against the foreign dignitaries inside and prevented them from leaving to the signing ceremony. Saleh disclaimed any control over the situation, saying that the balatija were merely voicing their political opinions, though the UAE embassy shares a wall with the Central Security compound, inside of which there were thousands of members of the Central Security Forces. A member of the Yemeni Parliament who went outside to inspect found Sinan Amran, an in-law of Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, appearing to be in command of the balatija.

Four hours later, Saleh dispatched a helicopter to rescue the foreign dignitaries and bring them to the Presidential Palace for the signing, where Saleh was busy micromanaging the placement of furniture, cameras and people so that everything looked just right on film. During a lull in the conversation, Saleh asked casually, “so, ah, have members of the opposition signed this?” Slowly testing the patience of those present, pretending as if the act of signing would not be one of the last significant acts of his presidency. His rattled aides reminded him that at the meeting they had with him at 8:00 AM that morning, they told him that the opposition figures signed the initiative the day before. This seemed to be a satisfactory response. After a final application of chapstick and the signing of the initiative by various ruling party officials, Saleh sat down in front of the piece of paper, pen poised in hand. Suddenly, he tossed the pen away, declaring that he will not sign until the opposition figures re-sign the GCC Initiative in his presence. After a brief private meeting with the red-faced US ambassador and the Secretary General of the GCC, Saleh emerged and gave his much anticipated public announcement to the nation, one that he likely knew he would be giving all along. He condemned “those who create chaos” and vowed to hunt them down. He also pointedly declared that he does not take orders from foreigners, signaling to the GCC, the US and the EU that their meddling in Yemeni affairs was not appreciated. The opposition figures whose presence Saleh demanded refused to attend for fear that Saleh would take the opportunity of their gathering to kill them. People laughed at the notion of such a brazen act as preposterous.

Starting the next day, the GCC and other foreign mediators streamed out of the country and Saleh began attacking Sadeq al-Ahmar’s house in the Hasaba district of Sana’a. On May 25, tribal mediators gathered at Sadeq al-Ahmar’s house under instructions by Saleh to mediate a resolution. While they were meeting, Saleh ordered the Republican Guard to attack al-Ahmar’s house with gunfire and mortars, killing several mediators (who were sheikhs) and their relatives, among others. Subsequent reports were that the mediators were planning on issuing a statement in condemnation of Saleh. Members of the JMP who refused to meet with Saleh for a second signing were vindicated.

In a last ditch effort to revive the GCC Initiative, Foreign Minister al-Qirbi flew to Qatar to try to convince Secretary General of the GCC al-Zayani to return to the negotiation table and to invite Abdullah bin Zayid, the UAE Foreign Minister, and Saud bin Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, to Sana’a for the signing. The hope was that the presence of these two prominent men would bring a level of prestige to the GCC Initiative and Saleh would feel more inclined to sign under their apparent pressure rather than the pressure of lowly GCC bureaucrats, foreign ambassadors and Yemeni opposition figures. That night, May 29, protesters in Taiz began reporting that the Republican Guard were using snipers to target unarmed protesters in Freedom Square and that tanks and bulldozers were making their way towards the square. By morning, there were confirmed reports that the Republican Guard burned and bulldozed all the tents in Freedom Square, and at least 20 disabled or elderly men who were too slow to escape and were burned or crushed to death. A total of at least 57 were killed that night and over 1,000 were injured, including some in critical condition. The field hospital located in the square was looted of its supplies and the bodies of protesters were stolen. Over the next couple of days, members of the Republican Guard went house to house arresting prominent activists, shooting randomly at people who were gathered in groups on the street and clashing with tribesmen who came down from the mountains on May 31 to protect the city. The protesters in Taiz have tried to regroup but have been thus far unsuccessful, suffering at least 11 more fatalities for their attempts. A group of female protesters was able to gather into the biggest group, forming a march of around 100 female protesters. Knowing that the norm has been for soldiers to avoid attacking women, their protest was a challenge to the regime to attack them as they had the male protesters who had attempted the same. The protest was eventually broken up by soldiers and pro-Saleh baltajiya women who ushered them away.

The protesters in Sana’a are expecting that the violence previously sequestered to the area around Sadeq al-Ahmar’s house will spread towards the square. General Ali Mohsen and his defected First Armored Division have stationed themselves in and around the square ostensibly to protect the protesters, though some protesters have said that in reality proximity to the protesters provides protection to the First Armored Division. Saleh has been gradually antagonizing Mohsen, bringing the violence closer to the square and occasionally targeting his men, but Mohsen has largely remained above the fray by refusing to retaliate. A response by Mohsen would signal a grave escalation in the level of violence, where the armed forces would be fighting itself and the protesters would be caught in between. The protesters, cognizant of their gradually diminishing and increasingly vulnerable role in this “revolution” have started to talk about going home, marching on the palace or taking up arms; any one of these being significant departures from their existing strategy.

For a man with 33 years of experience manipulating Yemen’s various factions and constituencies, people across Yemen who have been unable to understand the logic of his actions over the past few days and weeks have been speculating that Saleh has finally lost his mind. But his words to aides illuminated his plans, which he appears to be carrying out flawlessly: when asked about pressure to accept the GCC Initiative, Saleh responded, “I will leave Yemen as I found it.” That Yemen 33 years ago had far higher levels of literacy, lower levels of poverty and fewer casualties of political unrest is inconsequential. Saleh thinks that 33 years ago, Yemen was engulfed in war. 

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4 comments for "Crafting Chaos: Presidential Games and Yemen's Escalating Violence"


This is the most illuminating piece I've read on Yemen, period. I finally see what people in Yemen have been seeing. In contrast, last night (June 3) CNN Situation Room was simply: "American ally" Yemen imperiled by al-Qaeda and Awlaki, with Fouad Ajami as commentator (though instead of answering questions about Yemen he fulminated against Syria). Congratulations to Jadaliyya and your excellent writers. We urgently need your information and analysis, so much is at stake.

Thank you Jadaliyya wrote on June 04, 2011 at 08:07 AM

I would like to thank the writer for the article. The article answers some of my questions. Like many in the U. S. interested in understanding the people in the people revolutions going on I have found very little real information. Regarding Yemen and its people there is zero information available. Keep the information about Yemen coming.

RuthL wrote on June 05, 2011 at 06:35 PM

Thanks for the great analysis, Lara.

Khalid wrote on June 07, 2011 at 12:48 PM

This may all be true, however, let us all remember that the goal is peace and good government. More work should be going into planning the new constitution for Yemen, by, and for the people. You have friends here in Canada, and if you need our help in any way - we are here for you.

alclark wrote on June 07, 2011 at 04:50 PM

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