Yemen on the Edge

Iran and al-Qaeda anxiously wait for the other shoe to drop.

The unrest in Tunisia and Egypt has spread to Yemen, threatening the stability of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an enemy of Iran and Al-Qaeda. The protestors are demanding his immediate resignation but even if his rule lasts, the instability could allow Iran and Al-Qaeda to carve out enclaves in the Gulf country.

Tens of thousands of Yemenis have consistently protested in the streets since the removal of Tunisian President Ben Ali. At least one self-immolation has happened, inspired by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi that set off the Jasmine Revolution. Last Thursday’s “Day of Rage” consisted of at least 20,000 demonstrators in the capital of Sanaa.

Saleh has offered major concessions to alleviate the pressure on him. He has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2013 and power will not be transferred to his son. He has postponed parliamentary elections set for April so that the opposition has more time to organize and he now supports a national unity government that will include his opponents. Regional governors will now be directly elected and all adults will be eligible for voter registration.

He has slashed income taxes by 60 percent, now supports term limits, has released detained activists and journalists and has increased the salaries of government personnel, including the security forces. Saleh also announced reforms to benefit students such as a decrease in tuition, offering free tuition for the rest of the year and the creation of a fund to help them find jobs after graduating from university. This is a huge number of far-reaching reforms that reflects how seriously Saleh and his government view the unrest.

Brian O’Neill, a former editor of the Yemen Observer with a blog that closely follows developments in the country, told FrontPage that it is “very unlikely” that President Saleh will be forced into resigning.

“Right now there isn’t anyone with a strong enough power base to replace Saleh,” he said.

The main opposition bloc is called the Joint Meetings Party, which includes an Islamist party called Islah as its most powerful member. Islah was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood and has support from tribal chiefs and Salafists in the country. The party supports creating a religious police to “promote virtue and combat vice” and opposes “foreign occupation” and a “return to colonialism,” terms used to criticize Saleh’s close working relationship with the U.S. The Treasury Department has designated one of its top leaders, Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zindani, as a terrorist with ties to Al-Qaeda. He also has ties to Hamas and Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi.

President Saleh has valid reasons to remain confident that he can stay in power. His sweeping reforms could show the Yemeni people that he is responsive and the opposition, including Islah and al-Zindani, has partnered with his regime in the past. He has appointed family members to lead his national security institutions and the Internet, especially social networking websites, is not as accessible to the population as it is in other parts of the region. Large pro-Saleh rallies were able to be put together to counter the opposition and the regime’s opponents are divided. The government also has cultivated tribal ties, particularly those that are enemies of the Houthis and tribesmen were used to protect Tahrir Square.

However, the protests are continuing as many doubt Saleh’s sincerity about not running for re-election. He previously made the same commitment in 1999 and 2005. The anger against the government may not result in Saleh’s immediate removal, but it could stretch the regime’s resources and cause decentralization that benefits Iran and Al-Qaeda. It could also cause Saleh to try to win support from Islah and Salafists by reverting back to deal-making with Islamic extremists including Al-Qaeda.

“You wouldn’t see Yemen become Afghanistan [if Saleh fell]. You would see a reversion to tribal rule, with a lot of what are essentially mini-states, some of which would be open to hosting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, this is what is happening in slow motion already,” Brian O’Neill told FrontPage.

One senior diplomat told the New York Times that “the government is practically caged in the capital” and does not exert its authority much beyond Sanaa. The Saleh regime is currently grappling with a secessionist movement in the south, a growing threat from Al-Qaeda, and the likelihood of renewed warfare with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the north on top of the protests in the capital and around the country.

Between 300 and 500 Al-Qaeda members are in Abyan, Shabwan and Marib Provinces where the government has waged military offensives. Al-Qaeda has carried out many attacks on Yemeni police officers and soldiers and just executed a senior security official in Sadaa Province. Protesters have clashed with the security forces in the town of Jaar in Abyan Province where Al-Qaeda has a major presence, so it should be assumed that the instability will undermine counter-terrorism efforts.

Many Yemenis believe that the threat from Al-Qaeda is exaggerated or made up altogether and so it is certain that the weakening of the government will permit the group to have safe harbor. Anwar al-Awlaki continues to survive, even though his e-mail communications to terrorism suspects are frequently intercepted. He is a member of one of the country’s largest tribes and its leading sheikh says “this is the government’s affair and it is able to arrest Anwar,” passing the buck in bringing him to justice. The Yemeni government has tried him in absentia and issued an arrest warrant against him, presumably in an attempt to undermine his support.

The instability also presents an opportunity for Iran to revive its proxy war against Yemen and Saudi Arabia through the radical Shiite Houthi rebels in the north. The two sides have had a shaky truce since February 2010, though the Houthis have fought with tribes allied to the government. The Yemeni government recently released over 400 Houthi militants, but Saleh has complained to the king of Qatar about their violations of the truce he helped broker. The government claims the Houthis are still attacking civilians in Saada and are refusing to release prisoners and military vehicles. It also has accused the Houthis of firing a mortar at a government-allied tribe in Sadaa province that killed three civilians.

If these accusations are valid and are not a distraction, it likely means that Iran is testing the waters for a possible renewal of the conflict. The Saleh regime’s preoccupation with the uprising could lead the Iranians and Houthis to believe that it is the best time to fight for an autonomous state in northern Yemen, giving Iran a base on the Arabian Peninsula near the Red Sea.

Whether President Saleh is forced into early retirement or steps down in 2013, the West needs to be concerned about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the potential for Al-Qaeda and Iran to set up bases. The Islamists have good reason to be optimistic about Yemen.