Following months of protests calling for his resignation, the end of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime appears inevitable.
Saleh once seemed capable of weathering this most recent political storm. Until late March, the United States only called for an investigation of alleged government-sponsored violence against protesters and refrained from placing blame outright on the Yemeni government.
Now the Gulf Cooperation Council is attempting to negotiate Saleh’s peaceful departure and the United States is shifting positions on their long-time counterterrorism partner. What changed in Yemen? Two words: Ali Mohsen.
The March 21 defection of the Yemeni military’s Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who announced his intention to protect anti-government protesters camping in Change Square in Sana’a University, delivered a devastating blow to Saleh’s attempt to stay in power. His defection came days after an attack on anti-government protesters that proved to be the deadliest attack since these protests began. He is the first of Saleh’s inner circle to defect.
General al-Ahmar, commonly known as Ali Mohsen, was considered the second most powerful man in Saleh’s regime. As commander of the First Armored Division and one of four military districts in Yemen, Mohsen brings considerable firepower to the side of the protesters.
The significance of Ali Mohsen’s defection goes beyond the army he commands. He played a key role in bringing Saleh to power. Since then, he remained behind the scenes and out of the public spotlight and was considered a strong ally of the president. But in recent years, Ali Mohsen’s relationship with Saleh has deteriorated, allegedly stemming from Saleh’s efforts to hand power to his son and his attempts to consolidate around his family a shrinking pool of patronage benefits that in the past encompassed many in Yemen’s political establishment. In fact, their disagreement grew so heated that during a round of fighting in the Houthi Wars, Saleh allegedly tried to have Ali Mohsen killed in a Saudi air strike.
In 2009, prominent businessman and leading tribal figure Hamid al-Ahmar warned the U.S. Embassy that he would start a revolution if the parliamentary elections planned for 2011 were conducted unfairly. Persuading Ali Mohsen to leave Saleh was a central part of his plot. Although the current protests appear unrelated to Hamid al-Ahmar’s 2009 plans, Hamid demonstrated the crippling effect he expected Ali Mohsen’s resignation to have.
More so than bloody attacks on protesters, which the United States seemed ready to tolerate, it was the defection of Ali Mohsen that weakened Saleh’s regime both inside Yemen and in the eyes of the outside world. Only after his resignation did the United States directly hold the Yemeni government responsible for attacks on protesters. The resignation shifted the conflict from government against protesters to government against portions of its own army, prompting fears of civil war in an already unstable country.
Although Ali Mohsen’s defection puts extreme pressure on Saleh’s regime, it bodes worst for those who have been risking their lives calling for change. The students and youth activists, a demographic forming the core of the protests in their early days, expect to play a serious role in reforming Yemen’s government. As power players maneuver for position in a post-Saleh Yemen, most prominently evidenced by Ali Mohsen’s opportunistic defection, these expectations appear increasingly naïve.
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