Sarah Phillips writes:
There aren’t many foreigners traveling to Sanaa these days, but one group of outsiders is getting a lot of attention: an FBI forensics team, which reportedly arrived last week to investigate the attempted assassination of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now convalescing in Saudi Arabia.
Evidence from the scene indicates that the explosion may have been caused by a device that was planted inside the mosque on the presidential compound, and not by a mortar shell or rocket, as was initially reported. If true, this means that someone with close access to the president was involved, which raises the question of why members of the Yemeni regime’s inner circle — set to mark its 33rd anniversary in power next month — now appear intent on destroying each other?
To answer this question, it is necessary to look beyond the protests that have called for Saleh’s resignation and instead look at the premises of the political settlement that has held the inner circle together for so long.
The first spectacular rupture within the group came on March 21, when Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar publicly defected from the Saleh regime three days after snipers gunned down peaceful protesters in Sanaa, killing more than 50 people. Ali Mohsen is the country’s most powerful military leader and a distant cousin of Saleh. A fight between the two men has been simmering for at least a decade; empathy for the protesters was certainly not the only factor contributing to Ali Mohsen’s decision to jump ship. The rivalry between the two former allies was probably more decisive.
By joining the opposition movement, Ali Mohsen and other defectors from the regime have not necessarily heralded a new era for the Yemeni people. Instead, they appear to be settling old scores.
Al Jazeera reports:
President Saleh once compared his rule to “dancing on the heads of snakes”.
Earlier this year, Saleh appeared to stumble as protests engulfed the nation and succeeded in bringing together formerly disparate groups of military officials, politicians, tribal chiefs and demonstrators. The 69-year-old leader – who has reportedly maintained power through a network of patrimony and cronyism – seemed to have been caught off guard when, inspired by the Arab Spring, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets to demand an end to his 33-year rule.
Now in its fourth month – one of the longest uprisings of the Arab Spring thus far – it is a testimony to both the protesters’ determination and Saleh’s elusive style and stubborn politics. Although the demonstrations turned the tables of power on Saleh, he did not change his modus operandi, opting instead to treat the crisis as if it were a minor impasse. He attempted to bargain his way out and coupled empty promises with brute force.
Saleh initially offered not to run for re-election in 2013 and stated that his son, Ahmed Ali, head of the elite Republican Guard, would also not stand. It was the same promise he made in 2005, announcing he would not be a candidate in the 2006 election. He reneged on his word just three months before polls opened.
This time round, the nation would reject his offer. Demonstrators wanted nothing less than an immediate transfer of power and settled in for the long haul. Protests soon spread to other cities and Saleh began to respond with violence, particularly in the city of Taiz, where demonstrators were hit hardest.
The watershed moment that would mark a major turning point in the conflict was the March 18 attack against protesters. Known as “Bloody Friday”, 52 demonstrators were killed when they were fired upon by government-controlled gunmen.
The incident resulted in mass defections and resignations from top military and civilian officials, including several Yemeni ambassadors. To spare himself of the embarrassment of further political losses, Saleh sacked his entire cabinet on March 20.
Just one day later, General Ali Mohsen, Saleh’s former chief military advisor, defected – pledging to protect the demonstrators in Change Square – and signalling the first major blow to the regime. According to Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and expert witness on the country to the US Congress, the defection indicated a break between Saleh’s immediate family and the rest of his supporters in the military.