Yemeni Conflict: Dangers Of Escalation – OpEd


By Abubakr al-Shamahi

There is a fundamental lack of trust in President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The attitude to Saleh’s speech [in which he called for fresh polls] is – we’ve heard it all before. We don’t believe anything he says regarding elections.

Initially, everyone was shocked by his return, but when this wore off, there was only increased determination to continue.

After eight months of this uprising, many, including me, would have thought that, especially given Yemen’s dire economic situation, people would want to return to normal life. Maybe Saleh thought that if he would hit people hard enough, they would buckle.

But almost everyone I speak to is still as resolute as ever that this is the right path.

The universities are all closed, and the students and lecturers unions have all voted to continue striking. But I spoke to one of the founders of the protest camp in Taiz and he told me, “Education can be put off for the moment.” Freedom is more important.

Yemen is still a very tribal society and the danger of civil war is definitely increasing. The last week has seen crazy violence, the first prolonged fighting between the government and the opposition forces.

Last week, a Republican Guard base was over-run by the opposition, and the same thing happened this week.

Army units defected to the opposition in March and so far have been seen as the revolution’s protectors. These forces are in a tricky position, nonetheless – they get criticised if they fight back, accused of fomenting a civil war or trying to take over the revolution. But if they don’t fight back, it is taken as proof they are not defending the revolution.

The problem is that if people want to take up arms then the weapons are there; I read that there are three times as many weapons as people in Yemen.

The core of the youth movement is made up of university students, lecturers, engineers, teachers – these people are less clued up about weapons – but the average Yemeni will still know how to use arms.

Yet there is also an understanding that if the revolution turns violent, it will destroy the country.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t people talking about a military solution. Some say that this is not going to get resolved peacefully, and that the regime will only understand force. But this has to be balanced with the risk of tearing Yemen apart.

A conflict such as we have just seen in Libya would destroy Yemen. The main tactic still is to encourage defection.

Saleh co-opted different tribes with a patronage network. Now, the heads of the Hashid tribal grouping – which actually includes Saleh’s own tribe – have come out in support of the youth movement.

It is true that Saleh does have some support. The majority might be against him but his supporters are still very passionate. He has become a cult figure, especially amongst the older generation and those who watch state TV.

In Sana’a, perhaps a third are behind him. The government forces are a lot stronger here, and the capital has also been relatively well-off and stable in the last ten or 20 years, compared to other parts of Yemen.

The focus is also on Sana’a because a lot of the international media is there, so the extent of Saleh support is exaggerated. In the rest of the country, there is very little backing for the president.

From the first, the youth movement rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, peace plan, which would see Saleh handing over power in return for immunity for himself and his family. There is wariness over the intentions of the Gulf countries, and also a clear sense of irony about these monarchies bringing a democratic transition to Yemen.

With the opposition parties, it is a different story. They are taking the longer view, and maybe a more realistic approach. They think that acting over corruption, and having elections, could still make a difference.

But Saleh said he would sign the GCC agreement three times, and yet is still refusing to do so.

It’s unlikely that Saleh and his sons are simply going to leave. The hope still is that the Republican Guards and other government forces defect en masse – that is the best realistic scenario.

Abubakr Al-Shamahiis a British-Yemeni freelance journalist and editor of, a platform for young people to write about the region. This article was published by IWPR at Arab Spring Issue 33


The Institute for War & Peace Reporting is headquartered in London with coordinating offices in Washington, DC and The Hague, IWPR works in over 30 countries worldwide. It is registered as a charity in the UK, as an organisation with tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) in the United States, and as a charitable foundation in The Netherlands. The articles are originally produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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