This is the blog of journalist, Lonely Planet author and photographer Stuart Butler. It features news and travel updates from the regions in which Stuart works, including northeast Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan), Yemen and Sri Lanka.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Yemen Updates: President Saleh Injured

Yemen Updates:

Rumours President Saleh injured in attack on Presidential compound:
Al-Arabiya TV reports Saleh has been lightly injured in an attack by tribesmen loyal to tribal leader al-Ahmar. Suhail TV, run by one of al-Ahmar’s brothers, reports President Saleh has been killed in the attack. Sana’a is alight with rumours.

No matter whether Saleh has been lightly injured or killed, today, and the remainder of the weekend, are likely to be the critical days in the Yemeni uprising. Friday has been the traditional day of protest in the Middle Eastern uprisings and Yemen has been no exception to this rule. Last Friday, as with all previous Fridays for the past few months, saw huge numbers of people protesting peacefully on streets throughout Yemen. This Friday though things are very different. The atmosphere in Sana’a and other towns and cities is said to be extremely tense and though protesters have gathered on
60th Street
and the so called ‘Change’ Square in Sana’a numbers are said to be much lower than in previous weeks. This is partially to do with the sheer number of people who’ve fled Sana’a in the past few days and partially to do with a genuine fear that Saleh’s security forces will attack protesters in a repeat of events that took place in Ta’iz earlier this week. Last night security forces fired at protesters camped out in
Change Square
, although there were no reports of injuries. Very heavy fighting between Saleh’s forces and tribal fighters loyal to Hamid al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribal federation, has rocked the city all night and this fighting has now spread beyond the Al-Hassaba neighbourhood where al-Ahmar has his base and is now engulfing many parts of the city.

It is quite likely that this will be the last Friday of peaceful protest in Sana’a and that by next Friday Sana’a will be largely deserted by all except gunmen and the city, and country, will be a war zone or that Saleh will be gone and a new chapter will have opened in Yemen. And what will that chapter hold?

A few weeks ago many assumed that if the protesters managed to topple Saleh that an interim government representing all the opposition parties would govern the country until elections were held. Sadly, with the protesters peaceful movement now largely overshadowed by the fighting this seems increasingly unlikely. If Saleh were to leave power (or has indeed been killed – though this is likely to be mere propaganda) today then it would likely need a huge amount of effort on the part of the international community to get all sides involved in the Yemeni uprising to sit down and agree to share power until elections can be held. This has been an uprising essentially organised through social media and the problem the protesters have is that they don’t have a single unifying, charismatic leading figure to rally behind who can lead the country after Saleh is gone. It is possible that one of the military figures who’ve joined the protesters could run the country, but a military government with ties to the Saleh regime is not what the youth of Yemen started the protests for. Not that any of this may matter as now that tribal divisions have been brought violently into the mix and it now seems much more likely that a power struggle will ensue between various tribal groupings. If Hamid al-Ahmad’s fighters get rid of the Saleh regime it’s unlikely that al-Ahmad will merely lay down his arms and disappear behind the scenes again (although he has always wielded considerable power in Yemen). By getting involved in this way he is clearly stating that he wants power. However, other groups and many of the peaceful protesters who started this are unlikely to want to accept the man who helped turn their uprising violent to be their leader. Sadly, unless the fighting stops very soon the most likely scenario is that Yemen will descend into total chaos as old scores are settled and fighting erupts along tribal lines. My guess is that were this to happen the country would disintegrate into at least three parts. The far north around Sa’da will absolutely refuse to be governed by Sana’a anymore. An on-off war between the Houthis and the government in Sana’a has been taking place since 2003. The Houthis are a rebel Shia group claiming to be fighting against discrimination of their minority Shia community and essentially the government has had no control in this region for the past few years. The far south and east is also very unlikely to want to be governed by Sana’a anymore. Prior to 1990 this whole region was in fact a separate nation (South Yemen) and in recent years there has been a growing separatist movement in the south that has become increasingly violent over the past 18 months. This desire for separation is due to the fact that southerners have felt themselves marginalised by the government in Sana’a and they claim that despite the south having the vast majority of the oil wealth (what little remains of it anyway) that the north takes all the profits. If the country does split into three it’s likely that a relative peace will be quickly established around Sa’da and the north. The south, where tribal influence is not that strong, may also be relatively calm, but that’s far from certain. The central mountains, where Sana’a and most of the country’s population is based, is deeply divided on tribal lines and this area could split into numerous tribal fiefdoms and be subjected to much inter-tribal fighting in a manner similar to Somalia. And then of course there’s al-Qaeda, whose influence on day to day life in Yemen has been minimal in the past, but who will almost certainly use the power vacuum to try and expand their influence and turn parts of the country into a new Afghanistan. Whatever pans out in the next few days it’s now going to take something of a miracle to pull Yemen back from the edge of the abyss. 

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