If a state fails to protect its citizens, the International Community has to act. Madeleine Albright

Revolutionary Heartache

Yemen is on track to become a failed state: Old elites fight for power and cling to the status quo. Yet they are missing the obvious signs of change: The country cannot retreat from its new-found revolutionary spirit. Attempts to shut out the youth movement will invariably lead into chaos.

Many are afraid that Yemen will become a new Somalia. Indeed, the factors that were present before the collapse of the Somalian state are startlingly similar to those in Yemen: a president that does not want to leave power; a power struggle between members of the core elites; and a society divided along tribal and regional lines.

What is absent from this perception and consequently from the attempts to solve the Yemeni problem is the acknowledgment of a changing reality: the old conflicts are being played against the new reality of a revolution.

The Family Al Ahmar ( leaders of the Hashid tribal Confederation) and General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar (half brother of the President and top military leader) have been instrumental in ensuring the stability of Saleh’s regime in the last three decades. They were part of the same regime that brought the country to the brink of collapse. Yet division over power and privileges pitted them against their old ally, the President.

The struggle came to the forefront when Yemeni youths took to the street in mid February, calling for a new state that brings in real change – one that ends the control of the president’s clan over power; ensures good governance; fight the epidemic corruption; and offers a future of dignity to its citizens. Their demonstrations and sit-in strikes inspired and drew the support of otherwise divided tribal, regional, and sectarian groups, which put aside their differences and joined the youths.

That momentum was hijacked when the family Al Ahmar and General Mohsen switched sides and joined the youth movement. It changed the dynamics of the situation as Salafi groups and the Islamist Islah party, supported by the guns of Al Ahmar and Moshen, took control of some of the sit- in camps, punishing those who defy their orders in provisional prisons in the camps. Women leaders, who refused to follow the segregation imposed by Islamists in the sit- in camps were publicly beaten. Divisions within civil groups about the role of Al Ahamr family and General Mohsen started to weaken the resolve of the youths.

A peaceful social movement that had the support of a substantial segment of Yemeni society was sidelined. International actors trying to resolve the situation started to describe the situation as a ‘political crisis’ and a ‘power struggle between few strongmen’. The description is partly accurate. It does however ignore the reality of millions of Yemenis going to the streets protesting the status quo.

International attempts to resolve that crisis through the Gulf Initiative are stillborn. Not only because the Initiative misses the new reality by treating the situation as a ‘political conflict’. It also ignores the fact that calling on Saleh to sign the initiative will not lead anywhere. He will not honor his word. One has only to look at the methods he used during other crises to recognize a pattern: making promises that he will never fulfill to buy time, while using force on the ground to decide the situation in his favor.

There are no easy answers when it concerns Yemen. Those who know the country are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems that are plaguing it. But to insist on ignoring the very movement that changed reality on the ground and treating it as a mere footnote is not only unwise. It will backfire.

Read more in this debate: Ragnar Weilandt, Abdullah Al-Arian, Joseph Hammond.


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