This Commentary was first published as an op-ed in Foreign Policy's "Middle East Channel" on September 27, 2011
Back in June, when Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left for Saudi Arabia for treatment of his wounds, most observers thought Yemen's political crisis would be resolved in favor of the political opposition and the revolutionary street protesters. If Saleh -- who was badly burned in an attack on his presidential mosque -- did not die, then he would at least be prisoner of the Saudis, who had been actively seeking his resignation. Few thought he would ever return. And inside Yemen, the pro-Saleh forces would be weak without the president, so it was a hopeful time for those opposed to Saleh's rule. A transitional government would oversee a new set of elections that would usher in a new post-Saleh era.
That was then.
Over the bloody summer, the Saleh clan proved itself more than capable of holding on to its political position. The president's sons and nephews, who preside over key security and military positions, aggressively sought conflict. Sporadic fighting raged all over the country: in Taiz, in Sanaa, in Arhab, in Abyan, in Aden, and elsewhere.
In Sanaa, most victims of the fighting were civilians. Saleh's supporters seemed to almost relish provoking the military defectors aligned with Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the top general who joined the "revolutionaries" in March and promised to protect them.
The attacks on civilians not only sent a message to protesters, but also revealed the weakness of Ahmar's forces. Indeed, all the various groups opposed to Saleh's rule -- including Ahmar's 1st Armored Division, the revolutionaries in the streets, the forces allied with tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar (not related to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar), and the political parties of the Yemeni opposition -- together appeared incapable of tipping the balance of power in their favor. There were no elections, nor was the opposition able to form a successful transitional government, despite attempts to do so.
And Saleh did not die from his wounds. As a "guest" of Saudi Arabia, he recovered and over the summer was seen acting presidential -- meeting in the hospital compound with some of the other Yemeni government officials who were injured in the attack.
Western officials tried to quickly manufacture facts on the ground by dealing with the vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, as if he truly were the acting power in Yemen. Formally, Hadi was the acting head of state, but Ahmed Saleh, the president's son and commander of the Republican Guard, locked Hadi out of the presidential palace and forced him to work at home -- sending a clear signal about who was in charge.
Hadi did prove useful to the Americans, however. With his military background and local connections, he was able to rally the local forces and turn the tide against al Qaeda's ground assault in Abyan governorate. Hadi promised his cooperation and assured the Americans that Yemen would not allow al Qaeda to take advantage of Yemen's crisis. Local reports from Abyan say that Saudi and American airdrops were critical in keeping the loyalist 25 Mika Brigade alive while it was besieged for three months by militants in Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan. (Saleh thanked both the Americans and the Saudis for their support in the war on al Qaeda in a speech shortly after his return to Sanaa.)
The Americans and Europeans wanted Hadi to go further and implement the Gulf agreement that called for Saleh to step aside one month after signing it and for a transitional government to oversee new elections. They wanted a political settlement that would resolve the crisis that was clearly feeding Yemen's instability and preventing the country from addressing its badly deteriorating economy.
But Saleh's clan effectively prevented any political settlement, subjecting street protesters to live fire by snipers or random shelling, almost to show that it could act with impunity against its opponents.
Finally, in mid-September, news came that Saleh had authorized Hadi to negotiate a settlement based on the Gulf agreement. At last it seemed that there was hope for a political resolution. In a pattern that now seems all too familiar though, violence erupted almost immediately and soured hope that a political settlement was possible.
The origins of this latest round of violence are murky. Troops loyal to the government opened fire on the protesters in Sanaa. That much is clear, but it appears that the protesters were moving out of their positions toward the presidential palace and that Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar's troops were taking advantage of the movement to gain military advantage on the ground. In Yemen many accused Ahmar of instigating this round of fighting out of fear that he would be left out of a negotiated political settlement. Whatever the source of the flare-up, fierce fighting erupted that killed more than 100 people, mostly protesters, but also a significant number of soldiers due to clashes between loyalists and defecting military units.
Then, in an entirely new development, Saleh appeared with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in what appeared to be an official state visit. It suddenly appeared that the Saudis, who had actively sought Saleh's departure in the spring, were now officially backing Saleh. Just a few days later, he made his surprise return to Sanaa.
Officially, Saleh said he had returned to oversee a political settlement, claiming that dialogue was the only solution and that he came carrying an olive branch and a dove of peace. Immediately upon his return, however, there was an onslaught of new violence as Saleh loyalists tried to make a clear statement that any political settlement would be on terms dictated by the president. The Hasaba district where Sadeq al-Ahmar, the leader of the Hashid tribal confederation lives, once again came under attack. The home of his brother, Himyar al-Ahmar, in the upscale Hadda district was reportedly attacked as well, as was the headquarters of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar's 1st Armored Division. Peaceful protesters came under intense fire once again in Change Square. Either Saleh's supporters had been emboldened to press for a military solution, or they were seeking to weaken their adversaries.
Publicly, Saleh professes his commitment to peace. On Sunday, Sept. 25, he renewed his commitment to the Gulf agreement and reiterated that his vice president could sign it on his behalf. At this point such promises ring hollow. The Yemeni opposition and the revolutionaries in the streets refuse to accept any transitional government with Saleh's participation precisely because the president has long been a master at appearing to bow to popular pressure while in fact implementing his own plans on his own terms.
That is exactly what Saleh appears to be doing now. Three times, he has promised to sign the Gulf agreement, and three times he has changed his mind at the last moment. (On one of those occasions, he changed his mind with the U.S. ambassador at his side waiting to witness the signing.) From Saleh's perspective, he has survived not only an attempted physical assassination, but also a political assassination backed by the entire international community, including the all-important Saudis. But the Saudis appear to have reversed course and are tacitly backing him again. Why should he quit now?
US officials have grown weary of Saleh's insolence, and they officially announced twice in the first two days of his return that they want him to initiate a transitional government, and then resign. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah likewise called for Saleh to step down just a day after he left the kingdom for Sanaa.
Both countries' positions are comical in light of political realities in Yemen. U.S. policymakers will most certainly recognize Saleh's "facts on the ground" and support him, even for the rest of his term until 2013 and beyond. Saleh not only foiled the American attempt to create "facts on the ground" in the form of a transitional government without him, but he has created new "facts on the ground" that will enable him to stay in power regardless of U.S. and Saudi official platitudes, even if these are genuine.
Once again, Saleh has fashioned himself into the only viable game in town. This means that Yemen will not see any political settlement and that violence will continue. The revolutionaries in the streets will not give up, and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the Ahmar brothers will only dig in for a long conflict -- they have no choice.
Meanwhile, the economy -- and with it a growing humanitarian crisis-- will continue to worsen. In the north, there are already refugee camps from the years of the Houthi conflict; new refugee camps are emerging in the south as a result of the fighting in Abyan. Yemen's leaders appear bent on maintaining power at any cost, even the starvation of their own people, just as long as they remain on top.
The only real hope for Yemen now is another unexpected political surprise that will lead to a transitional government and legitimate elections. Given Saleh's evident advantage in a now deeply fractured and divided country, that is a thin hope indeed.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.