Late Thursday night, amid rumors that he was about to resign after almost 33 years in power, a defiant President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen went on national television to criticize demonstrators and declare a general amnesty for soldiers who had gone over to the opposition. His brief remarks were the latest act in a week of tense political drama in which scores of protesters in the capital were killed and Mr. Saleh’s most important military ally defected.
The protests in Yemen have been building since Feb. 11, when Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. What started small has now grown into a mass movement uniting, at least temporarily, the varied interests of Yemen’s fractured opposition around the single demand that President Saleh leave office. Tribesmen came together with student activists, while southern secessionists echoed northern rebels. Even clans at war for years put aside their blood feuds in favor of a common front.
The Boss, as Mr. Saleh is known by many in the country, survived three decades in the rough world of Yemeni politics by skillfully playing rivals off against one another. He tried to do the same thing this time: political concessions, bags of cash and new cars to wavering allies; violent crackdowns on demonstrators. But late last week, he overstepped.
Shortly after noon prayers last Friday, snipers at what has been dubbed the “square of change” near Sana University opened fire, killing about 50 protesters and wounding hundreds. The bloodbath resulted in a wave of defections by diplomats and military commanders, including Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, the head of the First Armored Division. On Al Jazeera on Monday — President Saleh’s 65th birthday, no less — General Ahmar announced that he supported the protesters calling for the president’s ouster and that troops loyal to him would protect the demonstrators.
The short statement by the most powerful figure in the military — a member of Mr. Saleh’s own tribe — signaled a new stage in Yemen’s revolution. The politically astute General Ahmar has long protected the president’s interests in the military, and his statement was an attempt to get ahead of the curve. By coming out in support of the protesters, he split Yemen’s armed forces, leading to a tense stalemate as troops loyal to each man squared off.
The United States and Saudi Arabia are quietly lobbying for a negotiated agreement, hoping to avoid more bloodshed, and Mr. Saleh and General Ahmar met this week. But the fear remains that if the two old comrades fail to find a workable solution, the transition to a post-Saleh Yemen could be violent.
What is certain is that the day after Mr. Saleh leaves, the protestors’ euphoria and unity will quickly begin to fade as they face rebuilding their country after years of misrule and impoverishment. The next government, whatever form it takes, will have to make difficult and unpopular decisions. The momentary alliances forged by common opposition to Mr. Saleh will not survive his departure; activists from the south, for example, say the revolution is the first step toward reclaiming an independent state for their region.
The United States and its international allies will have a limited window of opportunity to get things right in Yemen. No longer can the American government insist on seeing the country only through the prism of terrorism. Despite the Obama administration’s insistence that it is pursuing a wide range of solutions to Yemen’s multitude of problems, military and counterterrorism aid continues to dwarf all other assistance. The United States needs to do more to foster development in Yemen, to help create jobs and educate the country’s young people, to help the rural villages that have endured years of empty schools and no electricity.
Think of it as a strategic investment to defeat the current generation of terrorists and to prevent the formation of future ones. The story of one community, Rafdh, is instructive. It was so desperate for help that it petitioned Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to send men to teach their children. After an American bombing raid, the Qaeda members fled, and today, Rafdh’s school stands unused once more.
This may well be the West’s last chance in Yemen. If Mr. Saleh falls and the international community fails this time, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will be waiting in the wings to take advantage of the situation. Already, the organization has tipped its hand in recent statements, hinting at the argument it will be making in the coming months: Yemen, their ideologues have argued, has suffered under both monarchies and democracies. And now, they say, is the moment to finally return to the straight path of Islamic law.
If serious steps aren’t taken to rescue Yemen from its downward trajectory, that argument will soon sound a lot more appealing than it does today.
Gregory Johnsen, a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton and writes the blog Waq al-Waq.