Is it ‘game over’ in Yemen?

The Yemeni president still appears more defiant than responsive to the protests rocking his country.

The defection of army officers has aided the opposition [AFP]

Since snipers killed 52 Yemeni protesters a little over a week ago, events in the country have been progressing at a rapid rate. The shootings after Friday prayers drew nationwide condemnation and triggered a series of high profile defections – all of which served to increase the pressure on Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president.

But the most dramatic development in the unfolding Yemeni saga has been the defection of Major General Ali Mohsin, the head of the northwestern military zone and the first armoured division. In a recorded speech aired on Al Jazeera, he declared that he was deploying army units to protect the protesting youth.

Crumbling pillars

Often branded Saleh’s right-hand man, Mohsin was thought to have been behind the president’s rise to power in 1978 as well as being considered responsible for the victory of the northern forces over separatists in 1994. His defection has removed one of the strongest pillars propping up Saleh’s rule and threatens to split the army – the last card Saleh held.

Mohsin’s influence extends across many military institutions and it is widely believed that members of army units under his command are more loyal to him than to the president. But his clout is not limited to the military; he has built strong alliances with many tribal chiefs in northern and southern Yemen, as well as being close to the leaders of the Islamic Islah party. It is this network of connections that has enabled him to survive the eliminations that so many senior military figures have fallen victim to over the past two decades of Saleh’s rule.

Understandably, Yemenis greeted the news of his support for the youth movement with great enthusiasm, for it simultaneously opened the door for more people to join the protests, while adding to the cracks in the regime.

The fear that military men might hijack the people’s movement and use it to implement a coup soon subsided, as had earlier fears of tribal domination of the protests. After all, Mohsin is a shadowy figure who rarely appears on television and while he has the skills necessary to be a good military leader, he lacks the political dexterity required of a president.

His role now must be to fill any short-term power vacuum when Saleh falls and to prepare a civil government in the post-revolutionary phase. How he does this could be critical to determining whether the country falls into chaos and turmoil.

Surprisingly, he still appears more defiant than responsive and many Yemenis worry that his refusal to cede power may drive the country into a civil war. Those concerns were heightened when the defence minister, Muhammad Nasir Ali, appeared on television to declare the loyalty of the armed forces to the president.

This statement shattered the expectation that Mohsin’s defection would signal the beginning of a graceful exit for Saleh and instead underscored the emergence of a split in the military.

Saleh continues to misread the situation in his country and fails to comprehend the lessons offered by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Like Bin Ali and Mubarak, his concessions have been made under the pressure of protest and not out of a desire to institute fundamental political and economic reforms.

When the protest was still in its nascent stage, the president defiantly rejected a five point proposal drawn up by a coalition of opposition parties and presented by influential religious clerics and tribal sheikhs. That proposal marked a golden chance for Saleh to end weeks of unrest, but the president thoughtlessly dismissed it.

Now, as the protests have grown stronger, Saleh has accepted a proposal he initially rejected and appears willing to leave power in six months after a parliamentary election. But that offer is now too little, too late to satisfy the aspirations and demands of the country’s youth.

In response to the opposition’s refusal to be satisfied by these concessions, Saleh rallied hundreds of thousands of his supporters in the capital last week, in a bid to show that he still has broad public support. The move was initially taken as an attempt to force the opposition into negotiating a dignified exit for the president, but seemingly renewed Saleh’s confidence in his ability to manage the crisis. But that was just a one-day gathering and it is unlikely that Saleh’s supporters will be willing or able to match the opposition – spending long days under the sun and cold nights camped out in tents for weeks on end. When the critical moment comes, Saleh’s supporters will likely vanish.

The fear card

The president has lost his knack for manipulating his political opponents and his only remaining option is to leave office. To not do so will just expose him to greater isolation as the opposition grows broader and more powerful.

If he now expects to rely upon the army units left under his son’s command, he will be committing the most fatal mistake of his reign. Those units will not stand for long and will likely witness a flood of defections in the coming days.

Even if they do stand, it is unlikely that they will be able to use force against the protesting youth. To do so, in a country where the state does not possess a monopoly over violence and weapons are widely available, would trigger a descent into a bloody standoff and likely civil war.

Saleh has sought to play the fear card – warning Yemenis that they risk becoming another Libya and telling the opposition that the new groups joining their ranks – the secessionists in the south and the Houthi rebels in the north – are fractious and only united around the goal of ousting him. This may be true, but the president must realise that in those rally points for change and freedom across the country, a civil society is in the process of being formed. The only right thing he can do now is to leave the people to decide their own future.

Murad Alazzany is a professor in the department of English Studies at Sana’a University, Yemen. His main research areas are ‘the representation of Islam and Muslims in the Western media’ and ‘the political discourse of Islamic movements in the media’.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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