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USIP expert Steven Heydemann discusses Yemen’s uprising, which began in January with small, peaceful demonstrations, and has now brought the country to the brink of civil war.


May 27, 2011 - 9:30AM EST

Yemen’s uprising, which began in January with small, peaceful demonstrations, has now brought the country to the brink of civil war. On May 23, clashes broke out in the capital city, Sanaa, between army units loyal to President Ali Abdallah Saleh and opposition militias loyal to opposition leader and Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, head of the Hashid tribal federation. By May 26, the death toll from the fighting approached 100, and further escalation seemed inevitable. Opposition supporters and army units fought for control of key government buildings, and tribesmen loyal to Sheikh al-Ahmar moved from the countryside into Sanaa to reinforce pro-Hashid militias.

After months of negotiations that included mediation by the Gulf Cooperation Council and Western diplomats, President Saleh is widely seen as triggering the outbreak of conflict by refusing to honor his commitment to leave office. Three times, Saleh has come to the brink of signing a transitional agreement, and each time, he backed off at the last minute. Most recently, on May 22, Saleh reneged on a pledge to sign the agreement at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates. Instead, mobs of presidential loyalists besieged the embassy, trapping the American Ambassador and other diplomats for several hours. Army units loyal to the president took up positions around Sheikh al-Ahmar’s home, which itself had become an armed compound housing dozens of tribal militiamen brought to Sanaa for the protection of the Sheikh and his family. According to press reports, it was an attempt by army units to enter the al-Ahmar compound that was the specific trigger for the fighting that now threatens to erupt into full-scale civil war.

How did Yemen reach this point? While negotiations dragged on, protests demanding an end to the decades-long rule of President Saleh, who first rose to power in Northern Yemen in 1978, grew into a national movement this spring. Despite the regime’s efforts to end the uprising, including through the indiscriminate use of force against peaceful demonstrators, protests continued to gain in size and spread to virtually every region of the country. Elements of the armed forces defected to the opposition, as did several members of the president’s ruling party, and the leadership of some of the country’s most powerful tribal confederations, including Sheiks representing the al-Ahmar tribe. As pressure mounted, President Saleh indicated his willingness to leave office and to negotiate a transfer of power. However, while repeatedly expressing his willingness to step down, the president’s refusal to finalize an agreement, his often belligerent rhetoric, and the mixed signals he communicated about his ultimate intentions had the effect of polarizing relations between the regime and opposition. Saleh’s actions undermined both domestic and international confidence in his leadership. They heightened tensions to the point that his failure to appear at the UAE embassy on May 22, and his deployment of loyal units around opposition locations, were sufficient to spark the recent fighting.

The outbreak of violence does not mean an end to negotiations. Efforts continue to secure Saleh’s departure from power. However, with each additional clash, with casualties mounting, and with both sides hardening their positions and reinforcing their troops, the obstacles to a peaceful resolution of Yemen’s political crisis are increasing by the day.

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  • Eye on the Middle East and North Africa - Experts from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) are closely following developments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In a series of reports and interviews, they cover a wide range of issues.

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