Yemen: All Politics Is Local

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June 23, 2011: Five months of unrest have not overthrown the hated (by many, but not all) Saleh government. Saleh himself is still in a Saudi hospital. The Saudis say Saleh is not returning to Yemen, while many Saleh supporters want their leader back. The Saleh coalition can carry on without him, but it will take longer and cost more in lives and expensive concessions to new allies (or old ones who want a bigger cut). Yemeni politics is all about tribes dividing up a rapidly shrinking pie.

Hundreds of tribal gunmen are on the outskirts of the southern port city of Aden. Described as "al Qaeda," many of these groups of armed tribesmen are allied or influenced by al Qaeda, or just Islamic radicalism. Mostly, however, tribal militias are armed tribesmen led by someone out to expand the power and influence of the tribe.  An increasingly important item worth fighting for is food. Hunger is growing as food prices increased over 40 percent this year. The economy is in decline, meaning there is less money to buy food. A third of the population is showing signs of malnutrition and are regularly underfed.

One thing southern tribes are fighting over is oil money. For over three months, the largest oil pipeline has been shut down, costing the economy over $10 million a day (about half the oil income). Some 70 percent of the government income is from oil revenue. Repairs cannot be made because the tribes controlling the areas the pipeline passes through, will not guarantee security (of repair crews as well as the pipeline). In a country as poor as Yemen, this loss of income is keenly felt.

The tribal militias are small compared to the huge (often over 100,000 people) crowds of unarmed people demanding change (improvements in the economy and more efficient government). But a lot of the demonstrators just want more power and money for their tribe. This is taken for granted in Yemen, where "Yemen" is just another term for "my tribe." Historically, the large demonstrations (armed or unarmed) are followed by tribal leaders noting the number and determination of each tribe's followers, and negotiating a new deal. But this haggling has been prolonged because the Saleh crowd is unwilling to give up as much as they must to buy peace.

The low level fighting in the southern provinces of Abyan and Taiz continues, with more tribal militias taking up arms against the government. Actually, this fighting is usually more about local issues, as in which tribe or clan controls what. As a result, this is unorganized fighting, with groups of armed men (from a few dozen to a few hundred) attacking soldiers and police for specific goals, not as part of some grand plan. Each group of armed tribesmen that show up, usually triggers another tribe or clan organizing an armed response. So another few dozen, or hundred, tribesmen grab their rifles and follow their leader to a city, or roads (to establish checkpoints.) The fighting is low level, but there are several hundred casualties a week at this point. Most of the dead and wounded are tribal gunmen. The police and troops are better armed and trained, and more effective in combat. The tribal gunmen can also more easily just walk away and go home. After a few days of heavy, and unsuccessful, fighting, many do just that. But there are incentives to stay, as in looting. That, however, has to be done with some care. The shop owners and other urban residents are often armed, and can organize a neighborhood protection militia very quickly. In Yemen, any family with something worth looting, has one or more firearms, and men able and willing to use them.

Yemeni and American intelligence experts are disagreeing over who the most important al Qaeda targets are in Yemen. There is increasing American UAV activity over Yemen, seeking out al Qaeda leaders that can be killed with Hellfire missiles. The Yemenis prefer that the Americans go after foreign Islamic militants, while the Americans want to kill the most powerful and influential Islamic radicals first. Many of these guys are Yemeni, and have tribal connections that cause problems if one of them is killed. All politics is local. The Yemenis are very concerned about the foreign Islamic radicals, not just because they are outsiders, but because they are armed outsiders who are quick to kill native Yemenis.

The heaviest fighting continues in the southern city of Zinjibar, where the army says that over a hundred soldiers have died in several weeks of street fighting with tribal gunmen (some of them described as al Qaeda, but many just trying to change the existing power relationships.)

June 21, 2011: In the southern city of Al Mukalla (Hadramout province), 62 al Qaeda members escaped from prison, using a short tunnel. A group of armed al Qaeda attacked from outside the prison, to enable to the prisoners to complete their escape.

 

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