Confident that he could indefinitely dance on the heads of snakes, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally faltered. Saleh is currently in Saudi Arabia recovering from treatment for injuries sustained in an attack on his compound last Friday.
But, despite his departure, those calling for peaceful revolution in Yemen should not celebrate quite yet. The prospect of continued violence, weak state leadership, and confusion over how the presumed political transition will proceed threaten to overtake the nonviolent movement.
After Saleh reneged on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal on May 22 in which he would have abdicated power, the capital, Sana’a, witnessed two weeks of shelling and street battles between Saleh and the rival al-Ahmar family, head of a powerful tribal federation. Although Saleh has left the country, his son and nephews still control sizeable portions of the army and intelligence services. This inter-family conflict will continue, whether Saleh is in the country or not.
Meanwhile, confusion reigns regarding political transition. The Yemeni government is visibly unstable, with its president, prime minister, and speakers of both parliament houses absent in Saudi Arabia. While they are receiving medical treatment for injuries sustained in Friday’s attack, a weak vice president fulfills the president’s duties. Vice President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi claims Saleh will return in a matter of days, but the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are scrambling to arrange a power transfer and ensure post-Saleh stability.
Saudi Arabia may be backing a transfer of power, but a recent paper from Chatham House suggests that the Saudi government’s historic influence over Yemeni politics is eroding. There is also the risk of sending mixed messages to would-be revolutionaries in other Gulf states by supporting the removal of Saleh after reinforcing the crackdown in Bahrain. Lacking sufficient leverage in Yemen, the United States relied on Saudi Arabia’s efforts to negotiate a solution through the GCC. With both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia struggling to manage the situation, it’s hard to see how power transfer can be effectively implemented from the outside.
The peaceful protesters, who have maintained their commitment to nonviolence for nearly four months in a country known for widespread gun ownership, are the best hope for Yemen’s future. They have fostered a spirit of inclusiveness. Students, tribesmen, Houthis, southerners – both religious and secular – are collectively calling for a transparent democratic government. Most importantly, they outlasted Saleh’s bet that they would fracture in the face of his regime.
To remain strong during the uncertain, and likely violent transition ahead, this youth-led movement must clearly designate a leadership structure recognized by other political players, both local and international. If they fail to do so, they risk drowning and splintering in the coming political transition. Earlier, the movement naively placed confidence in the U.S. and the international community’s ability to step in and address Saleh’s crimes. However, Saleh was finally ousted not by peaceful protest, but by violence. The movement must come up with a more creative approach if it hopes to maintain momentum in the coming months.
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