President Ali Abdullah al-Saleh, in power in Yemen for the past 33 years and under siege for the past three months, left the country on Saturday night with a large piece of shrapnel lodged just below his heart. He may not come back.
Accompanying Saleh to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment were the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the speakers of both houses of parliament and Saleh’s personal security adviser, all of whom were also wounded in the Friday explosion at the al-Nahdayn mosque in the presidential compound in Sanaa. It’s a pretty clean sweep, so the question is: who comes next?
Nobody even knows whether the explosion was caused by a bomb planted in the mosque, a shell or a rocket. The situation is very complicated, so you’d better take notes. (There will be a brief test afterwards.)
The turmoil in Yemen is really two separate conflicts. One is a traditional power struggle between two elite factions. The other is a non-violent, pro-democratic youth movement inspired by the popular revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world. They were linked at the start (though most of the young idealists didn’t realize it), but they will be disentangled by the finish.
One of the elite factions is dominated by President al-Saleh’s own family: his son Ahmed Ali commands the Presidential Guard, and his nephews Tariq, Yahya and Ammar control other vital elements of the security and intelligence apparatus. The rival faction is led by the al-Ahmar family, whose current head, Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, is the leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, one of the two most powerful in Yemen.
The most important al-Ahmar brother is Hamid, a businessman and a leader of the opposition Islah party. There is ample evidence that Hamid helped to get the student protests underway, making his Sabafon mobile network available to send out messages organizing the protests and then covering the demos lavishly on his Suhail TV network (whose head office was burned by Saleh’s troops last week).
So far, so bad. What makes it worse is that the quarrel is among such a narrow and unrepresentative elite. The Saleh family, like the Ahmar family, belongs to the Hashid tribal confederacy. They both therefore follow the Zaidi tradition of Shia Islam, whereas a majority of Yemenis are Sunnis. Eighty per cent of Yemenis don’t even have a dog in this fight.
But the young Yemeni protesters in the streets are not interested in a mere reshuffle of the elite, and the Ahmar family has never controlled them. They actually do want democracy, and they have already paid a high price for their idealism: about half of the 350 people killed since the first “Day of Rage” in January have been unarmed youths.
The other half, in the past two weeks, have mostly been tribal fighters backing the Ahmar family and military forces controlled by the Saleh clan (plus lots of innocent bystanders). In terms of how Yemen has always been run in the past, the Ahmar family is now on the brink of victory. But the drama will not end there.
One of the student leaders, Hashem Nidal of the Independent Movement for Change, put it well in a recent interview with the BBC. “They wanted to push the revolution towards violence and we refuse this completely … We are co-ordinating with many protesters across the country to make sure they don’t fall into the trap of violence.
“After three months of great efforts in raising awareness among people to avoid violence,” he added, “we managed to reach a level of understanding that refuses violence. We are looking to topple this regime by peaceful means.” By “regime”, he means the tribal, sectarian, undemocratic way in which Yemen has always been run.
The departure of President Saleh won’t be the end of the story. The Ahmar family’s allies may take over the government, but they will face just the same demands from Yemeni youths who want a non-sectarian, democratic, non-tribal state that offers them a decent future regardless of their tribe, their sect, or even their sex.
If they get the chance to build that state, they will face horrendous challenges. Yemen is the poorest Arab country, and its modest endowment of oil is running out. So is the underground water it depends on for irrigation, and the population is growing at 2.6 per cent a year. Half of the 24 million Yemenis are illiterate, and half the population is under 18.
The kids may fail, but who stands a better chance of surmounting these challenges? A democratic government run by the younger generation of Yemenis, or a regime controlled by the Salehs or the Ahmars?
It’s all quite simple, really. So there will not be a test after all.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.