Will Yemen see peaceful power transfer?

Yemeni protesters shout slogans and show a palm with writing in Arabic that reads, "leave," during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, May 15, 2011.
Mohammad Huwais

SANAA, Yemen — Despite increased violence against protesters and rising tensions, the international community remains hopeful that Yemen can achieve a peaceful transfer of power.

The last clashes between rival military factions was in the heart of the capital, Sanaa, on May 11, when security forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh fired on unarmed protesters, killing 10. Hundreds suffered from bullet wounds during the four-hour shoot-out.

Large-scale fighting has so far been avoided, but the increased use of violence against protesters who have been pushing for Saleh's ouster for three months now, has heightened tensions. Opposition soldiers guard Sanaa's Change Square, where Yemen's protest movement was born, against attacks by loyalist forces and plainclothes gunmen.

And yet, in spite of military crackdowns across the country, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United States and the European Union are banking on a peaceful transfer of power. GCC Secretary General Abdullattif Al-Zayani has made several trips back and forth between Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, and Sanaa to mediate negotiations for a deal that calls on Saleh to handover power to his vice president prior to elections.

“We are committed to solving the crisis in Yemen through political negotiation,” said one senior Western diplomat.

While both the ruling party and the political opposition coalition, the JMP, have verbally accepted the agreement, both sides have been reluctant to sign, adding further conditions and stipulations to the already tenuous deal.

Meanwhile, protesters around Yemen have blatantly rejected the deal, demanding that Saleh and members of his family stand trial for crimes against humanity. The current deal guarantees Saleh and his family immunity from criminal prosecution.

In a speech given before thousands of his supporters on May 13, Saleh called his opponents “saboteurs.”

"We will confront a challenge with a challenge. Whoever wants power should head to the ballot box ... stop playing with fire," said Saleh.

Following Saleh’s address, JMP spokesman Muhammad Qahtan referred to the speech as a “declaration of war” in an interview with Al-Arabiya.

While the international community continues to confidently back the GCC-brokered deal, Western representatives acknowledge the risk of further violence.

“Clashes between military factions are contained at this point. However, what has happened in the past is no indication of what may happen in the future,” said a senior Western diplomat.

As the fragile standoff between rival military factions begins to weather, protesters have released a plan to ramp up their efforts. Protest leaders have called for a march on the presidential palace this week.

Protesters expect to suffer casualties as high as in the thousands. 

Should such a large number of protesters be killed, the backlash could be strong enough to prompt further clashes, according Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert based at Princeton University.

"The tense stalemate that has existed since [Maj. Gen.] Al-Ahmar's defection has recently shown signs of wearing thin, as rival soldiers have opened fire on one another this past week," he said.

Yemen’s most elite military units, the Central Security Forces and the Republican Guard, still remain loyal to Saleh. Under the command of his eldest nephew Yahya Saleh, the Central Security Forces also contain Yemen’s American-trained counterterrorism forces.

Most of Yemen’s regular soldiers, many under the command of defected Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, have defected from the Saleh regime.

Should war break out, the outcome is difficult to predict.

"Particularly important for Saleh as he continues to cling to power has been the loyalty of the Air Force, the Republican Guards — which are commanded by his eldest son — and the Central Security Forces, under the leadership of one of his nephews. These three groupings make up the inner circle of Saleh's defense. This, along with the president’s cash on hand, has allowed him to remain in power despite more than 100 days of protests," said Gregory Johnsen.

However, some soldiers under the command of loyalist generals may be unwilling to carry out commands.

One soldier in the Republican Guard expressed his doubts and fears about fighting a civil war.

"I would gladly give my life in defense of my country and my people but I will not die for Ali Abdullah Saleh," said the soldier, speaking from the base where he is stationed.

"I am so worried about Yemen. Our officers haven't told us anything, we are all just waiting."