The people of Yemen rallied in the hundreds of thousands to demand the resignation of the US-backed regime of President Saleh. The US has focused exclusive attention on Libya due to strategic interests., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
July 2, 2011
Doubts About President’s Health Add to Uncertainty in Yemen
By LAURA KASINOF
New York Times
SANA, Yemen — A senior Yemeni official who was briefed on the health of President Ali Abdullah Saleh said that the president’s injuries would leave him unfit to perform his duties for months, throwing a new degree of uncertainty into a political standoff that has trapped this impoverished desert nation.
With the streets still full of thousands of protesters, and Yemen’s economy in a tailspin, Mr. Saleh’s relatives have insisted on keeping power, clinging to a narrative that paints them as all that stand in the way of Islamist militants’ seizing control. They also hew to the position that the president will indeed return to his post.
As a result, Mr. Saleh’s departure to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment has yet to pave the way for a transition as the opposition, the United States and even some governing party members are pushing for, but instead has prolonged a crisis, as radical Islamists have extended their reach in the south and Yemen, a nation of 23 million, has struggled to survive.
“We are in a stalemate situation militarily and politically,” said Abdel Karim al-Eryani, a former prime minister and presidential adviser. “What do we do? We need to start fresh thinking about how to overcome the crisis.”
There are various proposals on the table, including the creation of a national unity government proposed by a bloc of Persian Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia and supported by Western nations. Before he was wounded in a bomb attack on the presidential palace a month ago, Mr. Saleh had agreed to the proposal but refused to sign it.
Now, with Mr. Saleh abroad and incapacitated, the biggest obstacle to a political transition may be his relatives who maintain powerful positions within the security forces, mainly his son and three nephews. This group, whom Yemeni officials refer as the “wild cards,” completely dismiss the legitimacy of the uprising that has drawn hundreds of thousands into the streets for the last five months to challenge the president’s rule.
“The problem is that the rest of the world believes that this is a youth revolution,” Brig. Gen. Yahya Saleh, one of the nephews, said in an interview in his office at the sprawling headquarters of Central Security Forces, the paramilitary division he commands.
“How many are there in the squares?” he asked. “Do they represent the majority? In a democracy, does the minority rule the majority? They should have some self-respect and go home. It’s been five months now, and it’s boring.”
A successful businessman before assuming his position in the military in 2004, General Saleh had a casual air, propping a black commando boot on a coffee table and frequently making himself break into giggles. He had an affection for the revolutionary Che Guevara, whose photo was on his cellphone, a somewhat jarring affinity for a general whose main task these days is thwarting a rebellion.
He and his family say that the protesters and the various strands of political opposition, would, if given power, pave the way for Al Qaeda to take over the country.
They fear surrendering the country they have ruled for decades to their tribal and political enemies — namely the powerful Ahmar family and Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, the military commander, no relation to the Ahmar family, who threw his support to the protest movement in March. This was days after government-allied snipers killed 52 protesters and shot more than 100 others while soldiers belonging to General Saleh’s Central Security Forces stood and watched about three blocks away.
The most outspoken member of the Ahmar clan, Sheik Hamid al-Ahmar, is a leading member of the Islamist party Al Isla, a religious party whose members cover a broad political spectrum. General Ahmar has had links to Islamic militants returning from Afghanistan, although he has presented himself recently as a voice of moderation.
The Saleh family says any appearance of moderation is a sham.
“The Americans are making a mistake to support any change that will lead to the control of extremists and the Muslim Brotherhood,” General Saleh said. He also rejected the idea that any attempt to include moderate Islamists in the political process would counter the strength of the extremists in the Isla party.
“Here in the Middle East, the extremists are the strongest,” he said. “Extremists have the power. So no one can stand against them.”
The fissures between the sides have existed for years, but the political uprising quickly forced them to the surface, as the Salehs believed that the Ahmars were fomenting the uprising. An important part of the initiative brokered by Western and Persian Gulf nations for Mr. Saleh to leave office was that these leading opposition figures would also have to leave the country for a set period.
Their split has also turned Sana into a divided city, with a standoff on the streets of the capital between the rival armies — those loyal to the Salehs and those belonging to General Ahmar. Analysts say the only reason violence has not grown worse is because both sides are armed to the teeth.
General Saleh has been a major beneficiary of American counterterrorism support, which has temporarily been cut off during the crisis.
He said a full investigation was being undertaken to find those responsible for the June 3 attack on the presidential palace. “Initial indications point to Al Qaeda,” he said, adding, “We must wait for the final results of the investigation of the assassination attempt, especially in light of the indications that some” members of the opposition “were involved.”
“All of us in the regime have given oaths that we would protect ‘the country, the revolution and the unity,’ ” he said. “Therefore, no matter how you look at it, we will never back down from our oath in which Allah is a witness.”