Special Report from Yemen: A Dangerous Impasse between the Salih Regime and Anti-Government Demonstrators


As anti-government protesters, whose numbers continue to swell, call for an escalation of demonstrations, Yemeni President Salih reiterated his intention to stay in office until the presidential election in 2013. The Salih government rejected the most recent five point plan put forward by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of opposition parties. The five point plan, which has the backing of some of Yemen’s most powerful clerics, calls for constitutional and electoral reforms and, most importantly, for Salih to step down at the end of the year. The plan also calls for the removal of many of his family members from the armed services. The five point plan was also rejected by a majority of the anti-government protesters who remain steadfast and united in their demand for Salih to step down immediately.

In front of Sana’a University, the epicenter of anti-government demonstrations in Sana’a, a number of protesters said that the JMP does not speak for them, while others asked where the members of the JMP had been a month ago when the protests began. Protesters like Wael al-Ans said, “the members of the JMP are just as corrupt as Salih, we need new parties.” Still more protesters asked how they could trust Salih to step down in a year, even if the plan was accepted. The protesters’ distrust of the president is understandable. Late last year Salih attempted to have the constitution amended so that he, in theory, could be president for life.

The intransigence and determination of both sides threatens Yemen with further instability at a time when the country already faces a host of largely intractable issues like resource shortages. Salih’s warnings about the chaos that will follow his departure are not without some basis in fact, but if he remains in power and attempts to thwart reforms, chaos and fragmentation of the country are likely guaranteed. Even before the outbreak of anti-government protests, the Yemeni armed forces were hard pressed to maintain true operational control over even a majority of the country.

Iran Backs Anti-Government Protesters in Yemen?

On March 2, in statements made before the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Iran was involved with Yemen’s opposition movements. Iranian backing of the protesters and anti-government opposition groups is as likely as President Salih’s claim that the anti-government protests were being organized from a “control room” in Tel Aviv that was in turn being directed by President Obama – a statement for which he has since apologized.

The only group that Iran may have some influence over or contact with, though this is unlikely, is the Houthis, a strident offshoot of the Zaidi Sh’ia sect. The Houthis are a small group whose nominally allied political party, al-Haq, has an extremely limited following. Furthermore, after years of war between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, wars in which several thousand Yemenis from across the country died, the Houthis are not popular with many Yemenis. Iran itself is not popular with many Yemenis. In conversations with protesters camped in the streets near Sana’a University, many voiced their dislike of Iran and its meddling in the Middle East. While many Yemenis in northern Yemen subscribe to the Zaidi branch of Shi’a Islam, it must be remembered that Zaidism is an extremely conservative sect of Shi’a Islam, so much so that Zaidism is often described as the fifth school of law of Sunni Islam.

Another anti-government protester named Imad who sat chewing qat in one of the tents erected near the university summed up what many of those sitting around him were saying as they debated the day’s news: “America wants Salih to stay and they will blame anyone they can find for the protests – they are all following the same program. Mubarak blamed the Americans and the Jews, Qaddafi is blaming Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, while Salih says Obama and Israel are behind the demonstrations.”

Comments that link indigenous anti-government protests with Iran do nothing for U.S. credibility in Yemen and in no way help either side move toward a compromise.

Ghosts and Phantoms: al-Qaeda Attacks?

On March 6, three separate attacks were blamed on al-Qaeda (al-Jazeera, March 6). The western media was quick to jump on the story citing information from nameless security officials within the Yemeni government. The first attack was on a group of Republican Guards who were reportedly delivering food, an unusual job for elite troops, to army checkpoints in Marib where they were attacked by gunmen who killed four soldiers. It should be noted that a low intensity war between much of the Abidah tribe and allied tribesmen and the Yemeni government is ongoing in Marib. The roots of the conflict are complex but much of it stems from a missile attack in May 2010 that was supposedly targeting an al-Qaeda operative in the region. [1] Rather than hitting the al-Qaeda target, the missile killed an influential sheikh, Jabir al-Shabwani, from the Abidah tribe. The ensuing conflict, which was largely ignored by the media, almost resulted in an all out war between the government and many of the tribes in Marib. Since then, the conflict between government forces and Abidah tribesmen has continued on a low level.

The other two attacks, which targeted state security officers, took place in the cities of Seyun and Zinjibar, which are both located in southern governorates where secessionists are active and where protests against the government have been met with violence by the state security services. While it is certainly possible that at least one of these attacks was carried out by al-Qaeda linked operatives, other possibilities should be considered. The Yemeni and U.S. governments have been quick to blame almost every attack in Yemen on al-Qaeda. This is not helpful or instructive in terms of formulating policies that might help stabilize Yemen. The al-Qaeda threat is helpful to the Salih regime, which receives ever increasing amounts of military aid from the U.S. to combat terrorism. The fight against al-Qaeda also helps give the regime international credibility as a partner in the “war on terror.”

Many Yemenis regard al-Qaeda as a tool of the government. The Houthis, who are regarded as heretics by Salafis, have repeatedly accused the government of using al-Qaeda operatives against them, though they have offered no evidence of this. In a recent interview with the Yemen Times, Hamid al-Ahmar, a senior member of the powerful al-Ahmar family which heads up the Hashid tribal confederation, said, “AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is a creation of this regime. They will vanish once the regime falls. If there is good governance, there is no reason for AQAP to exist. You know Yemenis. We don’t have this in our nature. For five to seven years we’ve been hearing about this Al-Qaeda thing. Did you hear of even one tribe that has announced that they support Al-Qaeda?” (Yemen Times, March 3).

While there are, no doubt, al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, the usefulness of the threat of al-Qaeda to the regime must be taken into consideration when formulating policy. The almost singular focus of the United States on al-Qaeda in Yemen to the exclusion of the numerous far more serious challenges that Yemen faces will not contribute to stability and may well help ensure further instability.  


Amid reports of the army using live fire to disperse protesters at several locations in southern Yemen and in Sana’a and the deployment of troops and tanks to parts of Sana’a, compromise seems even farther away than it did a week ago. Salih’s determination to remain in power is based on a combination of factors – one of which is genuine support. The Salih regime is not comparable to the regimes that were toppled in Tunisia and Egypt. While far more repressive in the south, where people lack tribal backing, the Salih regime has never been able to develop the same brutally repressive state security apparatuses that existed in those countries and that exist elsewhere in the Middle East.

On a recent trip through parts of Tihama (the governorate that abuts the Red Sea), this support for Salih was clear in many villages. Residents cited new roads (Ali Abdullah Salih is often referred to as “Ali al- Tariq” [Ali of the road] because of his penchant for road construction projects) and electrification projects as reasons for supporting the president. While far from unanimous, support for the president was widespread in many places, especially in the countryside. This is of course nothing more than a snapshot of a small part of Yemen, but it would be a mistake to assume that Salih does not enjoy some genuine support.  

This support, even if it is clearly a minority of Yemenis, combined with what looks to be some level of support and assurance from the U.S. for the Salih regime means that, barring compromise by either the regime or the anti-government demonstrators, Yemen could very well plunge into a civil war. However, the war would quickly take on tribal, sectarian and even cultural dimensions. The Yemeni Army will not act as an arbiter or guarantor of some level of order as the Egyptian Army has in Egypt. Parts of the army (the Republican Guard led by Ahmed Salih, the president’s son, are based in and around Sana’a) will carry out orders to disperse protesters with overwhelming force if such commands are given. While this will not succeed at quelling protests, it will guarantee further and far more intense conflict between anti-government protesters and the government and it supporters. A compromise must be found, and one can only hope that the U.S. and other Western powers are putting pressure on all of the involved parties to arrive at such a compromise. Though in the case of the anti-government demonstrators, this is admittedly difficult given the lack of clear leadership.


1. Andrew McGregor, Tribal Resistance and al-Qaeda: Suspected U.S. Airstrike Ignites Tribes in Yemen’s Ma’rib Governorate (Terrorism Monitor, Volume 8 Issue 8).

Michael Horton is a Senior Analyst for Arabian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation where he specializes on Yemen and the Horn of Africa. He also writes for Jane’s Intelligence Review, Intelligence Digest, Islamic Affairs Analyst, and the Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Horton studied Middle East History and Economics at the American University of Cairo and Arabic at the Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies in Yemen. Michael frequently travels to Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia.