Yemen: Rebels Running Out Of Time

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May 21, 2011: President Saleh has, so far, assembled a strong enough coalition to keep the popular uprising from removing him from office. But much damage has been done. The economy, already weak, has slowed down even more, and is causing more privation. This may prove to be the critical element for the government. Most food is imported, and the government controls (or can control, via the growing network of road checkpoints) distribution. When people get hungry, it's the government that is most capable to delivering a truckload of food.  The demonstrators may have right on their side, but the government has the rice. Which is more important when you are really hungry? Saleh now has time, and enough guns, on his side.  

Saleh is now offering a deal that, when signed, would have him leave office within 30 days (and new presidential elections held within 60 days), but be immune from prosecution and able to remain head of his political party. For most protestors, this deal does nothing to Saleh. As an old man, Saleh gets to go into semi-retirement, and still use his influence to continue stealing and mismanaging the country. For the opposition, the major obstacle is not Saleh, but his coalition of supporters.  Every dictator has such a coalition, held together with a combination of material incentives, threats, promises and kinship connections. When dictators get older (or sloppy or reckless) their ability to keep the coalition strong enough to contain the opposition (often most of the population) falters. But Saleh has held on for over five months now, and that increasingly demoralizing for the opposition.

While nearly 200 demonstrators have been killed so far, the opposition has not been able to muster enough armed strength to take on the security forces. Most importantly, the army and police, for the most part, remained loyal to Saleh. Some military units, or, to be more specific, their commanders, have gone over to the opposition. But there has been little in the way of loyal and rebel soldiers battling each other. The presence of rebel troops provides some protection from trigger-happy security forces. But people are still getting shot, and most of them are demonstrators.

There is still a lot of popular anger against Saleh, but for each day he remains in power, the opposition gets a little weaker. As time goes by, Saleh is able to get more and more people to hit the streets to support him. Saleh has done a lot of favors to a lot of people over the last three decades, and he calling in a lot of those favors right now. Saleh also understands that a lot of his opponents respect his effort to leave office "with dignity," even if it means avoiding punishment for crimes his opponents want justice for. Yemen is unique, as all places are, in its own way. Saleh understands this and, so far, has played the cultural quirks better than any of his opponents.

The Shia rebels in the north have largely been quiet over the last few months. That's partly because the largely urban anti-Saleh demonstrations conceal (to those outside the country) that over 70 percent of the population still live in a tribal culture. The northern Shia population is even more tribal, and thus more cautious and willing to wait to see what those Sunni southerners are going to do to each other. The southern tribes are often split in their attitude towards Saleh (who has done a lot of favors to tribal leaders over the years.)

Al Qaeda in Yemen has tried to take advantage of all this unrest, without much success. Every week there are few clashes, usually in the form of a few armed tribesmen driving up to an army or police roadblock, firing a few shots, and then driving away. Often there are no casualties on either side. The attacking tribesmen are often described as al Qaeda, but it's hard to tell. While some tribes have somewhat distinctive clothing styles, al Qaeda does not. There have been some larger confrontations, but no major battles or terror attacks. Some of the larger incidents have been described by locals as tribal in nature. The tribes are often feuding with local army or police units. That's a standard part of life in the Yemeni countryside.

There have been some kidnappings of soldiers by al Qaeda, but this sort of thing has been going on for years. Saleh continues to muster the support and loyalty of enough security forces and tribal gunmen in the south to keep the situation from getting out of control (as in an organized resistance down there).

May 19, 2011: Gunmen attacked the Marib power station in central Yemen, causing some damage, and hours of blackouts as power generation was reduced.

 

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