Seven years after revolution: Deciding priorities in Yemen

Haitham Nouri , Saturday 17 Feb 2018

This week’s anniversary of the 2011 uprising in Yemen followed important clashes in the southern port city of Aden

Yemenis in a march
Yemenis take part in a march marking the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in the country's third city of Taez, on February 11, 2018 (Photo: AFP)

11 February marked the seventh anniversary of the uprising in Yemen against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who had been in power for 33 years. During this time, he united the country for the first time in centuries and built an extensive network of interests that continues today despite the death of its founder.

Yemen’s incumbent President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, gave an address to mark the anniversary this week, telling Yemenis that the recent clashes in the southern port of Aden were an “alarm bell” for Yemenis and the Arab Coalition regarding those trying to “derail the battle for Yemen and the Gulf against Iranian plots by distracting attention through smaller destructive schemes,” as reported by the Yemeni news ageny SABA.

Hadi did not name who was responsible for the Aden clashes between the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist movement demanding a return to the former People’s Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), and militias affiliated to the Yemeni Reform Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen.

Hadi accused “coup militias” of igniting a “barbaric and absurd” war, a reference to the Houthi rebels, and added that the war by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition had blocked what he described as “Iranian plots” to “make Yemen a springboard for Iranian Houthi militias that threaten the region and world.”

He said that if it had not been for “the criminal coup by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, much could have been accomplished in the seven years after the Yemeni Revolution.”

There were celebrations marking the Revolution’s anniversary in provinces under the control of Hadi’s internationally recognised government, which is supported by the Arab Coalition. Saleh had refused to step down for nine months until November 2011.

Habib Abd Rabbo, a professor at Rouen Unversity in France, said that “the Yemen crisis is not any single party’s fault. Everyone is to blame for where we are today.”

He told Al-Ahram Weekly that “all sides have relied on outside forces. The rumour is that the Houthis are funded by Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Reform Party are supported by Qatar, the southern movement is assisted by the UAE, and Hadi relies on Saudi Arabia. This reliance on foreign support complicates the crisis, and therefore we cannot talk about stablility in a conventional way.”

Clashes broke out for several days in Aden, the capital of the former South Yemen and the second-largest city in the country, between Reform Party forces and Hadi’s camp (the STC) which succeeded in taking control of the city and demanded the resignation of Ahmed bin Daghr’s goverment that is accused of corruption.

The STC is led by Aidarus Al-Zoubaidi, the former governor of Aden, who was removed by Hadi in April 2017. He was a fighter pilot in the South Yemen army and played a key role in the 1994 War which Saleh won against southern separatists.

After the separatists were defeated, Al-Zoubaidi fled to Djibouti and created the Right to Self-Determination Movement for the South’s secession from the rest of Yemen. He was then sentenced to death in absentia by a military tribunal.

The Right to Self-Determination Movement ended in 2002 after Riyadh stopped funding it, according to observers, once a border agreement had been reached with Saleh in 2001. Al-Zoubaidi has denied being funded by Saudi Arabia.

After the clashes, Hadi’s camp joined the fate of the alliance between the Houthis and Saleh which disintegrated after clashes between the two sides in Sanaa in December 2017. It also resulted in the death of Saleh, several of his family members, and political aides. Hadi’s camp is a coalition between southerners, the Muslim Brotherhood and some smaller forces.

“There is no difference between the rebellious Houthis and Brotherhood terrorists,” said Sinan Al-Ahmadi, an activist in the STC. “They are both dangerous.”

In an interview from Manchester in the UK, Al-Ahmadi denied to the Weekly that the clashes were a UAE plot, as claimed by the Brotherhood, despite rumours that the wealthy Gulf state is funding the STC to take control of Aden and expel the Brotherhood as part of a greater struggle within the group which is categorised as a terrorist organisation in Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

There have been media reports that Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood in several Arab countries, including Yemen. This was confirmed when Tarek Saleh, the former Yemeni president’s nephew, arrived in Aden and was welcomed by the STC, according to Abd Rabbo.

“Tarek Saleh is accused of abuses against STC fighters before the Arab Coalition took control of Aden,” he explained. Tarek Saleh was also close to his uncle and in charge of the former president’s movements and protection. He remained with him until the moment he was killed and then fled Sanaa to Shabwa.

“There is a major plot that believes that ending Iranian influence will not succeed without the network of interests created by Saleh, which could be inherited by his son Ahmed, or nephew Tarek, whichever is more capable of leadership, ” Rabbo said. “The Salehs cannot succeed by themselves: they need southern support, namely Al-Zoubaidi’s leadership. ”

Most of the army was earlier loyal to Saleh, along with the middle classes, tribal leaders and most of the religious establishments. Today, either Tarek or Ahmed could inherit this political legacy. Abd Rabbo said there were rumours in Yemen that the UAE is working on a deal or coalition between Saleh’s network and the STC to end Brotherhood and Houthi influence. This would satisfy the Saudis, as well as the Egyptians and Emiratis, he said.

What makes the UAE’s task hard is reticence by some southerners about Saleh’s regime and mistrust in the north about the STC’s separatists intentions. “This doesn’t matter, ” responded Abd Rabbo. “Both sides want their sphere of influence in a federal state, Saleh loyalists in the north and the STC in the south.”

Al-Ahmadi confirmed that the STC accepts an alliance with Saleh’s network. “Everyone in politics is deciding on their priorities,” he said. “Our problem is with the Houthis and the Muslim Brotherhood because they are religious groups prone to violence. The Brotherhood is loyal to its global organisation and the Houthis to Iran.”

Such pragmatism can also be seen in the relationship between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, according to Yemeni commentator Ali Al-Rahbi. “Although Saudi Arabia supported the Brotherhood in Yemen to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis, it would not mind its defeat in return for erasing the Iranian influence in Yemen,” Al-Rahbi said.

“Saudi Arabia does not care whether the Brotherhood is present or participating in the government as long as Iran has no presence in Yemen. Everyone knows that the strongest camp capable of ruling Yemen is Saleh’s network and whoever inherits it. This network does not need social or political support from the Brotherhood or the Houthis,” he concluded.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly  

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