Cornered in Yemen: President Saleh Smiles and Snarls

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Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

Yemeni anti-government protesters chant slogans demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, March 22nd, 2011.

Choosing the speak as his government was plagued by defecting generals and the streets of his capital Sana'a filled with protests and tanks, Yemen's President on Tuesday played both roles of good cop and bad cop. First, he pledged to step aside at the end of the year — a proposal he had turned down just two weeks before. And then, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country for 32 years, struck a combative tone. He warned that widespread violence would result from any attempts to unseat him before then. "Those who want to climb up to power through coups should know that this is out of the question," he declared. "The homeland will not be stable, there will be a civil war, a bloody war."

The day before, the anti-Saleh protesters had celebrated their new military allies. Uniformed members of Yemen's military, Klashnikovs slung across their backs, were hoisted onto the shoulders of heaving crowds of demonstrators Monday. Key figures from the country's security apparatus had just defected and pledged to protect demonstrators who were demanding the president's immediate resignation. The cause of the protesters had seemed dire on Friday when armed gunmen opened fire on thousands of demonstrators immediately following mid-day prayers, killing more than 45 in the most brutal attack the country has witnessed since protests began in January.

Pressure against Saleh intensified after Friday's bloodshed, leading to mass resignations by members of parliament, acting ministers and diplomats from around the globe. On Sunday, the president sacked the cabinet. According to analysts, the backlash sent a clear sign, and high-ranking officers were looking to secure positions in whatever regime emerged next in Yemen.

Most dramatically, on Monday, in a televised press conference, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, half-brother to the President, announced that he was breaking ranks with the regime and mobilizing troops to prevent further attacks on protesters, setting off a flood of military defections unraveling the president's faltering grasp on power. "Yemen today is suffering from a comprehensive and dangerous crisis, and it is widespread," the general said. "It is because of what I feel about the emotions of officers and leaders in the armed forces, who are an integral part of the people, and protectors of the people, that I declare, on their behalf, our peaceful support of the youth revolution and their demands and that we will fulfill our duties."

On the surface, it appears that ranks from infantry to top commanders have little intention of siezing control of Yemen's frail government, but they may be decisive in breaking the current stalemate. "After Friday, the military is asking itself what its position in this country is. Are we here to kill unarmed citizens or are we here to protect them?" said Abdel Rahman Darshaw, an army officer attending the opposition demonstration.

Ahmar's defection is a particularly poignant blow to Saleh, a fracture in the tight system created by placing relatives in key posts. But the anti-regime movement may find him a strange bedfellow: just days earlier, the general was labeled a criminal on anti-government pamphlets distributed at protests. As commander of the 1st armored division and the northwest military district, Ahmar has been a central player in the Saleh regime, most notably carrying out a series of military campaigns against the northern Shi'a Houthi rebellion, which has backed Yemen's uprising and battled government forces as recently as this week.

While the support of many of Yemen's top brass would seem to bring security to the protest movement, the sudden change also threatens to push the country closer to the brink of chaos. Amidst speculation that General al-Ahmar was spearheading a power grab, the rival tanks positioned in the capital appeared to presage a full-scale war between the divided military. "We will not allow, under any circumstances, an attempt at a coup against democracy and constitutional legitimacy, or violation of the security of the nation and citizens," said Defense Minister Mohammad Nasser Ali defiantly in a televised statement, just hours after General Ahmar's defection. He added that Yemen's military apparatus, commanded by Saleh's sons and nephews, remained loyal to the president and would crush a mobilized uprising. "[The Defense Minister's response] is basically declaration of war," said Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a leading Yemeni political analyst. "At this point, we hope for international mediation."

At least in public, the international community remained largely silent as Sana'a appeared to inch closer to civil war. Saleh still controls troops in the Republican Guard, Special Forces and Central Security. Otherwise his control on the military establishment appears tentative. Commanders of Yemen's Republican Guard, elite units under the control of the president's son Ahmed, threw their support behind the protesters, decreasing the chances that a state-led offensive would end in success. "There's no guarantee that the rest of the army is steadfast with the supreme commander," said Iryani. "The more defections that take place, the less likely it is that we'll have violence."

"Without broad support of the military, I think that Saleh is facing significant pressure to step down. His options are limited, and the only way forward is to answer the call of the people," said Yassin Said Noman, leader of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a broad coalition of opposition parties.

With the military's pivotal role in sharp focus, questions remain concerning its role moving forward. "We need the support of the military establishment," said Hussein Khowlan, 32, a demonstrator, concerned that the sudden weight of the generals could set the country up for military rule. "But we're not prepared to sacrifice our goal of establishing a civilian-led democracy."

According to JMP politicians, the military's swift transition to the opposition is a positive step for Yemen's burgeoning revolution, not a threat to its goals. "After the massacre on Friday, the military is responding to the needs of the demonstrators and is here to protect the people in the square of change," said JMP spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri. "We need everyone in the army, in the country's many institutions, and people from every segment of Yemeni society. The military presence doesn't change any of the people's desires, and it won't change the result of the revolution." Said Noman: "There will never be a military rule in Yemen."

Still, the prospect of desperate violence on the part of Saleh is escalating quickly. "Is he going to take the country into a civil war in order to preside over a peaceful transfer of power?" asked Iryani. "His position is indefensible, but he may prove to be the same as Muammar Gaddafi."