The Arab Spring is about to add another dictator to its tally: Yemeni President Saleh. He is still being treated in Saudi Arabia for wounds from a dramatic assassination attempt, and officials say it will be “months” before doctors release him. It is increasingly unlikely he’ll come back to his home country, and if he does, civil war may erupt. This regime change is hardly being talked about, but it is one that Islamists are eagerly awaiting.
The Yemeni Vice President says he has no idea when Saleh will be released, and other officials are saying it will be months before he comes back. A Saudi official says that Saleh definitely will not return, but it still needs to be worked out where he will go into exile. If Saleh tries to return, he will meet a massive crowd of protesters and resistance from the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council. At least half of his generals have defected, and over 100 members of his Republican Guard recently quit. The most powerful tribe and General Ali Mohsen, considered the second most powerful man in the country as the head of the 1st Armored Division, have also turned against him. It is hard to see how Saleh stays in power, raising the question of what comes next.
Al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups in Yemen are prospering. Anwar al-Awlaki is a member of a feared tribe, and Al-Qaeda is advancing. They have just seized parts of Houta in Lahj Province, and previously captured Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan Province. The terrorist group’s gains have prompted General Mohsen to ask for foreign intervention to end the crisis. The Saleh regime blames the revolution for Al-Qaeda’s success, while the opposition claims that the government is permitting the terrorist threat to grow to justify its rule. The opposition is adamant that it would be a better partner in fighting Al-Qaeda, but the ideology of the opposition brings its own problems.
The opposition has united under the umbrella of the Joint Meetings Parties, which has been described as a “motley bunch of Islamists, Socialists and Arab nationalists united only by their common enemy.” The dominant party is Islah, which is supported by General Mohsen and the leading sheikh of the country’s largest tribe. Islah is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that is backed by the Salafists. The party has been opposed to Saleh’s relationship with the U.S., and wants to create a religious police to “promote virtue and combat vice.”
One of Islah’s top leaders is Sheikh Abdul Majidal-Zindani, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his involvement with Al-Qaeda and Hamas. He is tied to Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, the top Muslim Brotherhood theologian, which tells you all you need to know about his beliefs. He draws a strong crowd and openly advocates for Sharia-based governance, preaching that “an Islamic state is coming.”
There is some hope for a unity government that limits Islah’s power, but make no mistake about it—Islamists will be the dominant faction if things stand as they do now. It is also highly questionable whether the next government can hold the country together. There is a secessionist movement in the south, as well as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the north. The Houthis and the opposition forces are already clashing, even before their common adversary has been vanquished.
Iran is likely to gain an outpost in northern Yemen through its radical Shiite Houthi proxies. Iranian backing of the Houthis is well-documented, indisputable and thinly-concealed. In 2004, one of its leaders said “We are for justice. We do not know this democracy you speak of.” They fire the same Katyusha rockets as used by Hezbollah and Hamas, and some of the Houthi fighters even waved Hezbollah’s flag in July 2004. The Houthis have revolted several times, with the most recent rebellion happening in 2009. It was accurately considered a proxy war between Iran and its enemy Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. The Houthi leaders characterize their fight as a defense of Islam against the U.S. The Houthis can be counted on to renew their fight for an autonomous area that will immediately become a pro-Iran enclave right on the border with Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is about to become a major problem for the U.S., but no one is talking about it. The U.S. is increasing drone strikes and is constructing a secret base to launch them from, but that will not be finished for another 8 months. These drone strikes will probably not be employed against the Houthi rebels, and the problem of Islamist support in Yemen remains. It is uncertain whether the next Yemeni government will even approve of drone strikes, though the case of Pakistan shows their approval isn’t necessary for the U.S. to protect itself.
The revolution in Yemen has big implications. It’s about time we start paying attention.