Yemen: Background

Glen Carey/Bloomberg News

Yemen is a poor, deeply divided country that has been in turmoil since January 2011, when the example of the Tunisian revolution set off mass demonstrations against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Mr. Saleh, who has been in power since 1978, responded alternately with conciliatory measures, violence and delaying tactics. After losing the support of the United States and some senior military leaders, he agreed in April to a plan brokered by other Gulf nations under which he would turn power over to a national unity government. But in May he balked three times at actually signing it, and fighting broke out between government forces and tribal militias that appeared to take the country to the brink of civil war.

On June 3, Mr. Saleh was wounded in an attack on the mosque within the presidential palace and was taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment. The blast left him with severe burns over much of his body and killed several guards and a senior official of the governing party.

What followed was a standoff, a leaderless twilight of uncertainty that has left Yemen to face a humanitarian crisis as prices soared and the economy cratered. A number of outlying provinces have fallen completely outside government authority, including into the hands of militants linked to Al Qaeda.

In early September, Mr. Saleh signed a decree authorizing his vice president to negotiate a transfer of power and early elections. The official opposition reacted cautiously, but the prospect of talks appeared dashed by government attacks on protesters the next weekend that left 40 people dead.

The conflict mushroomed into new violence that reflected a bitter, decades-old rivalry within Yemen’s political elite. The rivalry pits Mr. Saleh and his family — who still control most of the country’s important military and intelligence resources — against one of Yemen’s most powerful tribal clans, the Ahmars, and an army officer who has defected, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, who is no relation to the clan, and whose soldiers have been protecting the protesters for months.

On Sept. 23, Mr. Saleh abruptly returned from Saudi Arabia, calling for a cease-fire and a return to negotiations. Over 100 people had died in the fighting by the time the streets of Sana returned to calm on Sept. 25.

Recent Developments

Sept. 25 In a speech, Mr. Saleh confirmed that his deputy remains empowered to pursue a transfer of power, backing an earlier plan for early elections. The official opposition reacted cautiously, while younger protesters expressed no interest in negotiating with Mr. Saleh.

Sept. 23 Mr. Saleh sought to reinsert himself into the conflict upon his dramatic return to the country, saying “the solution is not in the barrels of guns and cannon, but in dialogue.” Gunfire rang out across the capital — much of it celebratory — and mixed with the thundering of artillery, raising fears that an effort by the president to retake control in the capital would only deepen the country’s violent conflict

Sept. 21 Five protesters were killed in scattered violence. The head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Abdul Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani of Bahrain, who had arrived in Sana two days before to oversee what was supposed to be an agreement, left without a deal.

Sept. 19 Violence convulsed the streets of Sana as government security forces battled soldiers who have joined anti-government protesters in the worst violence since March. Medical officials in the capital said the death toll from two days of fighting had risen to more than 40. The violence threatened to scuttle any hopes for an accord between President Saleh and his opponents, and raised the prospect of open and more intense sparring among factions of Yemen’s divided military, which many feared could lead to civil war.

Sept. 14. A United Nations report said the Yemeni government has used excessive and deadly force against peaceful demonstrators, killing hundreds and wounding thousands since the beginning of the year. The report urged immediate international action to alleviate a humanitarian crisis and prevent the country from falling into further chaos.

Sept. 10. Having failed so far to bring an end to the nation’s political crisis, a delegation of governing party officials traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, hoping to persuade the absentee president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to help break a stalemate that has paralyzed the country for months. Mr. Saleh’s governing party wants the president to jump-start the transition of power and take steps toward carrying out a proposal advanced in the spring. Although it faces great odds, the delegation represents one step in an attempt to get Mr. Saleh to agree to what he has repeatedly said he would accept — leaving power — only to repeatedly back off his word.

Aug. 29 Mr. Saleh appeared on state television to wish the nation a happy Id al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, and to criticize the opposition. Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, the second most powerful person in the country, who has sided with the opposition, gave his own broadcast suggesting that Mr. Saleh would soon face the same fate as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Aug. 23 Prime Minister Ali Mujawar returned to Yemen after weeks of recuperating in Saudi Arabia from injuries sustained in a deadly attack on the presidential compound in early June. Mr. Mujawar is the first high-ranking official to return from being treated in Saudi Arabia after the attack. President Saleh, however, still remains in Saudi Arabia despite vowing to soon return to his country.

The demonstrations first began in late January, at roughly the same time as those in Egypt, and picked up steam in February. Mr. Saleh's initial heavy-handed response only fueled the protests, and his initial offers to step aside at a future date seemed to equally embolden the demonstrators.

A turning point appears to have come on March 18 in a bloody but failed attempt to break the back of the protest. As tens of thousands of demonstrators rose from their noon prayers, security forces and government supporters opened fire. At least 50 people were killed and more than 100 injured, but the attack failed to disperse the crowd.

Mr. Saleh responded by firing his cabinet. On March 21, five army commanders and one of the country's most important tribal leaders threw their support behind the protesters. A stream of Yemeni officials resigned from the government, including the mayor of the restive southern city of Aden, a provincial governor and at least one of the country’s ambassadors.

Yemen's opposition coalition, the Joint Meetings Parties, proposed a plan under which Mr. Saleh would leave at the end of 2011, and he agreed. But protesters then rejected the plan and called for Mr. Saleh’s immediate ouster.

In April the United States, which had long supported Mr. Saleh, quietly shifted positions after concluding that he was unlikely to bring about reforms. On April 7, the Gulf Cooperation Council, an organization of oil-rich Persian Gulf states, joined the increasing number of international voices calling for a transfer of presidential powers to a government of national unity.

On April 23, Mr. Saleh said that he accepted a proposal by Gulf mediators that would shift power to his deputy 30 days from the signing of a formal agreement and grant him and his family, who occupy key positions in Yemen’s security apparatus, immunity from prosecution. Leaders of the street protests rejected the deal, saying he should leave without condition. After an initial hesitation, the Joint Meetings Parties said it would accept the idea, including immunity, if protests were allowed to continue during the interim period.

Many in the opposition believed that Mr. Saleh was merely playing for time, and in fact, he repeatedly pulled back at the last minute from signing the deal. It was originally to have been signed on May 1, then on May 18 and finally on May 22, when Mr. Saleh at the last minute scuttled the agreement, and hundreds of his armed supporters blockaded an embassy, trapping American, European and Arab diplomats for hours. The gulf mediators left the country as fighting broke out the next day between security forces and the Ahmar tribe.

Background

Home to one of the world's oldest civilizations, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world as well as a haven for Islamic jihadists and the site of what amounts to a secret American war against leaders of a branch that Al Qaeda has established there — a branch that Western officials fear has had increasing freedom since the unrest began.

Until the protests, the world's attention had mainly been focused on fears that the country could become Al Qaeda's next operational and training hub, rivaling the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. Yemen’s stability was of increasing concern to the United States, which has provided $250 million in military aid in the past five years. The Obama administration was nurturing enduring ties with Mr. Saleh's government to prod him to combat Al Qaeda. The U.S. military was conducting airstrikes even before the Christmas Day 2009 attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound jet by a 23-year-old Nigerian man who later claimed that Qaeda leaders in Yemen had trained and equipped him.

The delicate position of the United States in dealing with Mr. Saleh now seems as evident in Yemen as it is in Bahrain, where pro-American leaders have cracked down on adversaries on the street clamoring for the monarchy to make way for democratic change.

Diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations offered an intimate view of the wily, irreverent and sometimes erratic Yemeni autocrat. Mr. Saleh has sometimes accommodated and other times rebuffed American requests on counter terrorism.

History

With its location at the southwestern end of the Arabian Peninsula, the land of ancient Yemen became rich from the spice trade. So rich that the Romans called the land Arabia Felix — Happy Arabia — and Augustus Caesar tried, but failed, to annex it. That prosperity overlapped with the rule of an Islamic caliphate in the 7th century. When the caliphate broke up, Islamic imams exerted control, sowing the seeds of a theocratic political system that would survive for centuries.

Northern Yemen became part of the Ottoman Empire. Southern Yemen was in the hands of the British after 1839, when they built a protectorate around their port of Aden. North Yemen would become independent of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and declare itself a republic in 1962; it was not until 1967 that the British withdrew from southern Yemen.

When Marxists took over the government of southern Yemen in 1970, many people fled to the north, and a civil war raged for two decades. The conflict became a proxy conflict in the cold war, with the Soviet Union aiding South Yemen, and the United States bolstering the north.

Though north and south were unified as the Republic of Yemen on May 22, 1990, the violence and internecine conflict did not end. The country's extreme topography — with dramatically rugged mountains and remote deserts — helped create impenetrable fortresses for warring tribes, which have long attacked government officials and foreign tourists, as well as one another.

Today Yemen faces a violent separatist movement in the south and an intermittent rebellion in the northwest, though President Saleh has expertly played Yemen's various tribes and factions against one another for decades. When one of the country's most prominent tribal sheiks, Hussein al-Ahmar, resigned from the ruling party, it was a deeply troubling sign for the regime.

Al Qaeda in Yemen

Much of the violent tribal feuds, banditry and kidnapping in Yemen appear beyond the control of the central government. Yemen has the region's largest arms market: the country, with roughly 20 million people, is said to have at least 20 million guns.

Yemen did not become a special concern for the United States until 2000, when Qaeda operatives blasted a hole in the American destroyer Cole, killing 17 sailors. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Yemen joined in a counterterrorism partnership with the United States, and its American-trained forces had some successes in fighting jihadists, even as terrorist attacks on foreign targets continued sporadically.

The jihadists claiming allegiance to Al Qaeda appear to have reorganized and become more methodical, releasing more propaganda materials on the Internet and carrying out more attacks. In July 2007, suicide bombers killed seven Spanish tourists in eastern Yemen, and there were two unsuccessful attacks on oil installations. In September 2008, 10 people were killed (none of them Americans) when two car bombs were detonated outside the American embassy in Sana, the capital.

Linda Spillers for The New York Times

Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric now hiding in Yemen, is perhaps the most sophisticated ideological opponent the United States has faced since 2001. Several former Guantánamo detainees fled in 2009 to Yemen from Saudi Arabia and pledged to mount attacks on Saudi Arabia and other countries from their Yemeni redoubt.

Despite the American airstrike campaign, the leadership of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula survives, and there is little sign the group is much weaker. Attacks by Qaeda militants in Yemen have conducted several deadly assaults on Yemeni army convoys. Al Qaeda's Yemen branch regularly puts out its first English-language online magazine, Inspire, complete with bomb-making instructions.

An Uncertain Future

Whether or not Mr. Saleh is forced from power, the political crisis in Yemen will likely remain acute, not only because of its tribal culture and topography, but also because of its deep poverty, high illiteracy and birth rates, and deeply entrenched government corruption. Its economy is precariously tied to oil resources, which are declining rapidly.

The governing elite mainly comes from the Sunni majority, which makes up 55 percent of the population and is concentrated in the more developed coastal regions of the south and southwest. A Shiite movement, based in the mountainous north, declared independence and its intermittent rebellion has left thousands of people dead since it began in 2004.

The government is also deeply unpopular in the remote provinces where Al Qaeda militants have sought sanctuary. The tribes there tend to regularly switch sides, making it difficult to depend on them for information about Al Qaeda. "My state is anyone who fills my pocket with money," goes one old tribal motto.

The current democracy protesters may mark a change from that mindset.  During February's protests in Taiz, long a bastion of opposition sentiment, a local cleric preached to the crowds of men and women sitting on the pavement.

“This is not a revolution against a person, a family or a tribe,” he said over a loudspeaker to the gathering, which stretched over blocks and blocks of the city’s streets. “This is a revolution against oppression and corruption.”

For years, Mr. Saleh managed tribal-dominated Yemen by propping up scores of carefully chosen tribal leaders, giving them money and weapons and placing them in important positions in government. The loyalty of these empowered sheiks largely guaranteed the loyalty of their followers.

But tribesmen from rural areas made up the majority of the tens of thousands spending day and night at the demonstration in Sana. With large numbers of them unemployed, their vow to stay at Sana’s encampment until Mr. Saleh steps down carried weight.

Source: The New York Times; http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/yemen/index.html