Losing Saleh, Saving Yemen

Don't fall for Saleh's PR campaign. Civil strife and tribal warfare are not inevitabilities of Yemeni regime change.

The mysterious June 3 attack that severely wounded Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and killed several of his close associates (while, incongruously, the dictator and his cronies were reportedly at prayer) has marked a watershed in Yemen’s ongoing internal crisis. Up until this point, Saleh was increasingly beleaguered but still capable of actively maneuvering to retain his position. After being injured and later transported to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, though, he has been unable to do so effectively. Indeed, it appears ever more unlikely that he will be able to return to Yemen. But who—or what—will replace him is highly uncertain.

The growing opposition to Saleh includes the “democratic youth” demanding that the president and his cohorts be put on trial, the established (and largely uninspiring) political parties that are willing to grant him and his family immunity in return for giving up power, a growing number of defectors from the security services, and the sons of Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar—the legendary chief shaykh of the Hashid tribal confederation who died in December 2007.

While he was alive, Shaykh Abdullah was simply too powerful for Saleh to outmaneuver, weaken or (most importantly) oppose. Since his death, though, Saleh and his clan have progressively outmaneuvered, weakened and opposed Shaykh Abdullah’s sons—who have, not surprisingly, repaid them by siding with Saleh’s opponents.

Yet even with Saleh out of commission and the opposition growing stronger, his regime is being fiercely defended by Saleh’s thuggish son (Ahmed) and three nephews (Tariq, Yahya, and Ammar) who together command the most powerful (in part due to American military assistance) security services. Saleh’s son and nephews—and those around them—are strongly motivated to suppress the opposition since Saleh’s downfall would result in an abrupt end not just to their power, wealth and aspirations for inheriting the regime, but also possibly to their personal liberty and even their lives.

Also in this mix are al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other radical Islamist groups. As widely reported in the media, some of these have taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil to seize various towns in the southern part of the country. Many Yemenis, however, believe that the Saleh regime is actually allowing this to happen in a desperate attempt to gain the support of external powers by persuading them that the fall of Saleh will inevitably lead to the rise of AQAP.

But while there are many who accept this logic, it is inherently flawed. It is the Saleh regime’s defiantly clinging to power despite widespread opposition that is creating the turmoil that allows radical Islamists greater freedom to maneuver. If the conflict over the future of the regime could be ended through Saleh’s downfall and replacement by a popularly accepted government, a new Yemeni leadership would be in a much stronger position to deal more effectively with AQAP & Co.

But who would be this new Yemeni leader? As in other Arab countries, the democratic youth in Yemen appear to be leaderless. The established opposition parties mainly adhere to the Arab world’s discredited ideologies of the past—Nasserism, Ba’thism, Socialism. As was said of the Bourbon royal family restored to power in France after the downfall of Napoleon: they have learned nothing and they have forgotten nothing.

Especially in the absence of any other acknowledged national figure, one of the senior al-Ahmar brothers (either Sadiq or Hamid) may have the greatest potential for being accepted both by the Yemeni public and by Yemen’s international partners. Unlike the mercurial Saleh, the al-Ahmar family has maintained strong ties to Saudi Arabia and the West for decades and would likely continue to do so once in power. But while undoubtedly more popular domestically than the Salehs, there are also many Yemenis who fear that life under al-Ahmar rule would be little different than life under the current regime. Many see the dispute between the Salehs and the al-Ahmars as being over which family should be more powerful, not over the nature of the regime. This fear is as much of an obstacle to the final downfall of Saleh as are the actions of his son and nephews.

The al-Ahmars, though, do not have to behave like Saleh has for over three decades. If they declare that they will work to transform Yemen into a democracy and one of them goes on to win elections for president (and it is difficult to see who else could), he would be well advised to keep his promise in order to avoid the fate of his predecessor. This is also what America and the West should work for. And while Saudi Arabia is not exactly in the habit of promoting democracy in neighboring countries, it will not oppose this scenario if it offers the best chance for building stability and weakening the jihadists in Yemen—two goals it shares with the West.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the election of one of the al-Ahmars will lead to peace and stability in Yemen. Nor is it certain that one of the al-Ahmars would run for and win the presidency. But if it isn’t one of them who becomes president, it will undoubtedly be someone whom they—and the powerful tribal confederation they lead—support. It is certainly not foreordained that only chaos will follow Saleh, as the Saleh regime has self-servingly proclaimed and all too many outside Yemen fearfully believe.

Yemen may well continue to fester in conflict and poverty no matter who becomes president there. But there is no question that this will be its fate so long as the Salehs attempt to cling to power.