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Yemen slides into civil war

June 1, 2011


Antigovernment protesters react as they block the road with rocks and burning tires during clashes with Yemeni security forces in Taiz, Yemen, on Wednesday, June 1.

After months of trying to tamp down unrest, Yemen‘s embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his security forces have become embroiled in a conflict that meets all the classic definitions of a civil war.

He and his security forces are now fighting on three main fronts: In the capital of Sanaa, Saleh loyalists are engaged in a pitched battle with tribesmen under the direction of Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, leader of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation; Islamist militants have taken control of the southern province of Abyan; and in the southern city of Taiz, Saleh’s Republican Guard violently dispersed protesters. Yemeni government forces have reportedly killed more than 50 people since Sunday.

Saleh has maintained power for 32 years through deft handling of the country’s various conflicts – reuniting north and south Yemen after a civil war, securing the loyalty of tribal leaders through a generous patronage system, and drawing aid from the West to fight Islamist militants including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

However, analysts appear increasingly uncertain that Saleh will be able to pull out of this chaotic situation, which reflects deep divisions that go beyond the popular dissatisfaction with Saleh’s leadership, writes Khaled Fattah in a Guardian Op-Ed.

Saleh cannot hold on for ever, and he will find it increasingly difficult to negotiate the terms of his departure. But while his exit from the political arena will be a symbolic victory for the people, his replacement with another leader will not save the country from its divisions.

Yemen is a deeply fractured country that is in conflict with itself.

In Sanaa, a brief truce between Saleh and Mr. Ahmar has completely disintegrated. In the most recent round of fighting, tribesmen took over the headquarters of the ruling party, as well as several other government buildings in the Hasaba neighborhood, despite heavy shelling by the government. The tribesmen were fighting partially to defend the residence of Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, whose home – also located in Hasaba – has been targeted by the government in recent days, Al Jazeera reported. Residents told The New York Times that it was the fiercest fighting they had seen yet.

Mr. Ahmar has emerged as one of Saleh’s most formidable rivals. Last week, Saleh ordered the arrest of Ahmar, whose tribal fighters pose the most significant threat to Saleh’s control of Sanaa.

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