East of Aden A President Struggles to Keep Yemen Together
Part 3: 'Al-Qaida is Calling the Shots'
A study finds that Yemen will be the first country to use up its water supply. Up to 80 percent of the water used in agriculture goes to khat plantations. The country's oil and gas reserves dwindle at a faster pace than the Tourism Ministry can develop its El Dorado.
A large portion of Yemen's 23 million people live scattered around the country in 150,000 villages, isolated by mountains and deserts. Swaths of the country have no paved roads, water supply or electricity. Tribal leaders make laws. Although the president relies on the tribal system, his governors are often perceived as incapable and corrupt.
"There is a huge amount of diplomacy that needs to be done and is not being done," said Edmund Hull, the former US ambassador in Sana'a. "We have ceded the initiative to al-Qaida, and al-Qaida is calling the shots."
Washington has pledged up to $250 million in aid for 2011. But others say that Saleh is precisely the reason why Yemen, in the 21st year of unity, remains as disunited as ever.
'The Lackey of America'
Saleh celebrated the 32nd anniversary of his power, on July 17, with a table-sized cake and an equally sweet announcement: "We are prepared to form a national government of the entire political spectrum in order to hold elections in time," in April 2011. Since then, though, he's changed his mind.
Last Tuesday the army launched a large-scale, demonstrative military operation against AQAP. The president knows he can no longer take the interests of the tribal groups into account. The package bomb affair was too significant. Saleh must now prove to the United States, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world that he can manage on his own. He will have to apprehend the brains and architects behind the foiled attack, and he will have to do so quickly.
The Yemeni military has conducted operations in the southern provinces of Abjan and Shabwa since August. "From now on, there will only be blood and severed heads between us," Awlaki boasted at the time. "As long as you are serving the despot Saleh, the lackey of America, which is leading a crusade against Islam," he said, the soldiers would not be spared. Flyers were handed out in the streets of Zinjibar in September listing 55 officers with death threats against them.
There have been at least two direct battles with AQAP, in the cities of Laudar and Houta, where the army surrounded suspicious neighborhoods and evacuated the population. Then the areas were bombarded with artillery and from the air. The AQAP fighters managed, however, to escape.
US intelligence characterized the operations as a sham.
The regime in Sana'a is also seeking to weaken separatists in the south with its current campaign and establish its military in the provinces. Any criticism of the campaign has been painted as criticism of the holy war on terror.
The Harak leadership makes these propaganda efforts easy for the government. In Shabwa Province, the group's general secretary called upon fighters in late September to cut off access routes for the army. The entire campaign was nothing but "an excuse to subjugate the south," Ali Salim al-Bid, the former leader of the south, said from his exile in Oman.
In Aden, the Toyota decorated with verses from the Koran is now standing in front of an unsightly building. The words "Institute for Human Rights Studies" are printed above the gate. "The president is under great pressure from the USA, Europe and the Gulf states," says Takiya Abd al-Wahid, the director of the institute. He invites a number of people to discuss the issue in a carpeted garage. Sixteen older men are already camped out in the room. Barefoot and dressed in skirt-like robes, they chew khat leaves while watching tennis on TV, without sound.
Politics and Khat
These khat sessions are common in Yemeni democracy. Few would hit upon the idea that these men, chewing khat, belong to the old elite, but they are in fact former cabinet ministers, university directors, diplomats and governors of the People's Republic of Yemen, which came to an end in 1990. Some speak German and talk up their days in Dresden and Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz in eastern Germany).
Khat was banned under the socialists, except on Thursdays and Fridays. Now these former high-ranking officials have their cheeks full of the leaves. "It stimulates the mind," some khat users say.
The group discusses politics, the future as well as the past. Present in the room are leftist Nasserists and Baathists as well as pragmatists who would vote for the Islamic party, saying: "It's the only party that is currently strong enough to force the president to decentralize power." Maybe it's the calming effect of the khat leaves, but almost no one in the room believes there will be a new civil war between the north and the south.
Muajjad Barakat, a popular poet, says, "We cannot achieve much on our own. Unfortunately, the differences among us South Yemenis are also a fact." The most suitable framework, says Barakat, would be a country with multiple regions, "like Belgium or the former Czechoslovakia."
The men dream up drafts and seek to rectify old ideological differences. They have nothing but contempt for the regime, which they associate with an inability to break from the past.
Others, meanwhile, have long since been shaping the present.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: A President Struggles to Keep Yemen Together
- Part 2: Advance of the Fundamentalists
- Part 3: 'Al-Qaida is Calling the Shots'