Source: New York Times, 26/05/2011
By ROBERT F. WORTH and LAURA KASINOF
WASHINGTON — The president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has long been known as a devious and unpredictable ruler, famous for his brinkmanship.
Yet in recent days, as Yemen slips from political crisis into bloody civil conflict, Mr. Saleh’s evasions have become downright bizarre — exasperating kings, presidents, and even many of his own loyalists. Three times, he has promised to sign an agreement to transfer power in the face of vast street protests, only to back out at the last minute for reasons that seem trivial.
“Even by his own standards of what is rational, he is not being rational,” said one American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol.
Last week, John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, called Mr. Saleh and told him that if he signed the agreement to step down, President Obama would single out the Yemeni president as a positive example of change in his long-awaited speech on the Middle East, according to another administration official. The United States and Saudi Arabia have grown deeply worried about the political vacuum in Yemen, which has been a boon to Al Qaeda’s local affiliate.
Mr. Saleh promised he would sign. But he changed his mind again, this time in spectacular fashion. On Sunday, as diplomats waited for him to arrive at the signing ceremony in the Yemeni capital, Sana, hundreds of armed supporters of Mr. Saleh surrounded the building and trapped them for hours, preventing the ceremony from taking place.
Later, some of his subordinates signed the document, but Mr. Saleh refused, saying he wanted the political opposition — who had already signed it and had not been invited until late in the process — to be present.
On Wednesday, the capital echoed with exploding mortar shells for the third day in a row. Dozens of people have been killed; one local doctor said he had confirmed 54 dead on the opposition side alone.
The State Department ordered all eligible family members of United States government employees and some nonessential personnel to leave the country, according to a statement on its Web site.
The conflict pits Mr. Saleh’s security forces against his tribal rivals, the Ahmar family, whose members play leading roles in the political opposition. The two sides are struggling for control of important government buildings, including the Interior Ministry, which are near the Ahmar family compound.
The United States, which has worked closely with Yemen on counterterrorism, is now considering pushing for United Nations resolutions or even sanctions against Mr. Saleh and his family members, to pressure him to sign the agreement.
American officials are finding they have little leverage with a president who seems to believe he can outfox his opponents — and perhaps secure a bailout from Saudi Arabia — despite the dire situation in his country, much of which is in open revolt and where several provinces are beyond his control.
To some Yemen observers, there is nothing new in all this except that Mr. Saleh is now in the global limelight. “He’s always survived by promising and pulling back,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University who has lived in and written about Yemen. “He thinks he can cajole and bluff and threaten and wear people down until someone says ‘O.K., you win.’ ”
It is not clear whether Mr. Saleh realizes that the current crisis is far more serious than anything he has faced before. Yemen’s economy is collapsing, and its largest tribes are on the brink of armed rebellion. Mr. Saleh may soon run out of the money he needs to maintain his followers’ loyalty.
Mr. Saleh’s loyalists say he is driven by concern about Yemen’s future. Yemen’s political opposition, they say, has been a profoundly unreliable partner; it is fractious and ideologically diverse, and it lacks the experience necessary to run a government.
Yemen appears to be paying a tragic price for the struggle playing out between Mr. Saleh and his rivals. The nonviolent youth movement that inspired people across the country with its calls for democracy and an end to corruption has been overshadowed by a bloody street battle in the heart of the capital, one that now threatens to metastasize.
The conflict has deep roots.
“This power struggle between rival elite factions has been brewing for several years.” said Ginny Hill, head of the Yemen Forum at Chatham House, a research organization in London.
When the youth protest movement broke out in January, many of Mr. Saleh’s loyalists blamed it on the Ahmar family, especially on Hamid al-Ahmar, a telecom mogul. It is true that Mr. Ahmar has long cast himself as a rival to Mr. Saleh, and had proposed fomenting a revolution against the Yemeni president to United States diplomats in 2009.
But Mr. Ahmar played no part in the uprising that began in January. He has certainly tried to capitalize on it, using his vast wealth to provide food for many of the protesters camped out in a public square in Sana.
Yet many of the independent youth protesters do not trust the Ahmars to be Yemen’s next leaders. They say an Ahmar presidency would not bring the change they are calling for, namely the transformation of a system of tribal favoritism and patronage into a modern state.
“We deny that violence. We don’t want it to be like that. It doesn’t belong to us,” said Hamza al-Kamaly, a youth protest leader, by telephone from the Sana sit-in. “You can say we don’t belong to any side right now. We swear to God that we will never use weapons or hold arms.”