Yemen's Death Spiral: How the Economy and the Military Will Play

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Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Yemeni antigovernment protesters march near burning tires during a demonstration in the southern city of Taiz on May 11, 2011, to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Yemen's revolution has been a slow-burning one. Three months after an 18-day whirlwind of protests tossed Egypt's Hosni Mubarak from power, Yemen's youthful protesters are still in the thick of their own Arab uprising. However, though hounded and abandoned by senior members of his party, army and tribe, President Ali Abdullah Saleh somehow continues to cling to power.

Time and again, Saleh has reneged on apparent agreements to step down. But time may now be running out as rival factions of the military begin to turn on each other and the economy heads into a death spiral.

The events of the week so far are ominous. Yemeni protesters decided to go on the offensive and tighten the screws on their embattled ruler, who was holed up behind the high walls of his presidential palace, still dithering over an initiative brokered by Gulf states that would see him exchange power for immunity. The Civic Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, one of the leading protest groups, unveiled a plan to escalate efforts to oust Saleh that includes national hunger strikes, civil disobedience and blockades of roads and ports, as well as a march on the presidential palace.

On Wednesday afternoon, May 11, a throng of 2,000 young men and a handful of women and children left the cover of their makeshift tents in Tagheer Square, the center of the protests, and began marching toward the Cabinet office in downtown Sana'a. As they neared their destination, their cries of "God is great" and "God rid us of this tyrant" were suddenly interrupted by the crackle of gunfire. Soldiers from the Republican Guard who appeared on the balconies and rooftops of nearby houses rained bullets down on the seething crowd of protesters. Men, mostly in their early 20s, donned swimming goggles and gas masks to protect themselves from the cloud of tear gas before charging headlong into the melee, hurling chunks of broken-off paving slabs as bullets whistled overhead.

Then came an even more troubling development. Troops loyal to Major General Ali Mohsin, who has declared himself to be on the side of the protesters, joined the fray, opening fire with Kalashnikovs on Saleh's troops. The rival military groups have rarely opened fire on each other. Doctors working in a nearby mosque turned field hospital said 10 people were killed, including one woman; hundreds of others were reportedly injured in the four-hour gun battle that raged into the night. So far, the death toll in the months-long uprising is close to 200.

With the bloodshed increasing and tracts of the country sliding out of Saleh's control, Yemen's oil-rich neighbors in the Gulf have been growing twitchy. Abdullatif al-Zayani, the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is due to touch down in Sana'a on Saturday, May 14, to try to resuscitate the plan conjured up by the Gulf monarchies two weeks ago that would see Saleh surrender power in 30 days in exchange for blanket immunity for himself, his relatives and regime officials — including commanders of security forces that have repeatedly fired on protesters.

The last time al-Zayani was in town, the deal he emerged with was dashed when Saleh flinched at the last minute and refused to sign in his capacity as President, saying he would endorse the agreement only as the leader of the ruling party, something the opposition has outright rejected. If al-Zayani is unable to clinch an agreement on Saturday, it could well be the end of GCC efforts to broker an end to the crisis. Qatar announced late Thursday night that it was bailing out of the mediation efforts, citing Saleh's "procrastination and delay in signing the proposed agreement" and "the intensity of the clashes" in cities across Yemen. Saleh, who recently accused the oil-rich sheikdom and its state-funded news channel, al-Jazeera, of "funding chaos in Yemen, Egypt, Syria and throughout the Arab world," is unlikely to be bothered by Qatar's withdrawal. But if the GCC pulls out completely, he will lose his best way out of the crisis.

Analysts fear that if Saleh does not accept a face-saving deal by the GCC, the fate of the impoverished country may end up in the hands of Yemen's fractious armed forces — which could result in civil war. A military confrontation would elevate the crisis to the level of catastrophe. General Mohsin, who is Saleh's half brother, controls more than 50% of all military resources and assets. He shouldn't be seen as a champion of democracy, despite his taking the side of the antiregime demonstrators in the current crisis. (In the 1980s, he recruited mujahedin for the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, some of whom eventually coalesced into Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda; he also brutally crushed an uprising in northern Yemen, displacing millions of people.)

The grizzly-bearded renegade general is commander of Yemen's 1st armored division (a force known for using not just tanks but also child soldiers) as well as all armed forces in northwestern Yemen. After his oath to protect antigovernment demonstrators, Mohsin's rebel soldiers began encroaching on the capital, setting up checkpoints and campsites along Sana'a's major highway less than a mile from the country's largest international airport. They have also positioned themselves near the state television station in the same area, only a few hundred yards from a base occupied by Saleh's Central Security Forces.

Saleh still controls a sizable chunk of the military, and his son Ahmed remains the head of the Republican Guard. But his forces are overstretched and underequipped as the government tries to deal with unrest that has spread through most of the country's cities. On Thursday local papers reported that Saleh was planning to field military cadets to bulk up his security forces, giving rise to suspicions that the regime may be running out of military manpower.

Yemen's unrest is slowly breaking the back of the country's already crippled economy. Tribesmen blockading Yemen's oil- and gas-producing Marib province are creating a fuel crisis that is costing Yemen $3 million a day in blocked exports. Fuel shortages mean dry parts of the country have not received water shipments, and even the capital, Sana'a, is grappling with power outages that last up to 10 hours a day. Food prices have skyrocketed and the cost of cooking gas has quadrupled in a country where some 40% of the population of 23 million people live on less than $2 a day and a third face chronic hunger. Oil and Minerals Minister Amir al-Aydarous warned on Thursday that Yemen was on the verge of an "economic disaster." Said al-Aydarous: "If the problem persists, the government will be unable to meet the minimum needs of the citizens. The situation will pose a catastrophe beyond imagination."