Mahdi Mohammed didn’t sound like himself. He didn’t sound like the smiling young father I’d met among a throng of anti-government protesters in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, in February. And he didn’t sound like the earnest activist who promised me, when I was deported from Yemen in March, that he’d welcome me back to a “free Yemen” in April. The Mahdi I spoke to early Tuesday morning sounded—along with the rest of the Yemeni protesters I spoke to this week—like he was at the end of his rope. That’s because, with President Saleh’s third rejection of a brokered peace deal over the weekend, Yemen’s revolutionary youth movement finds itself teetering at a dangerous crossroads: continue negotiations with a duplicitous tyrant who has no intention of leaving office, or take up arms against a regime that heavily outguns both the protesters and the tribes that oppose it.
Yemen’s revolution started in early February, when a small band of young people, inspired by the democratic aspirations of their Egyptian counterparts, took to the streets in cities and rural areas across the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest, most volatile country, calling for the end of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s thirty-two year rule. Despite brutal crackdowns by both government forces and government-paid, machine gun-wielding thugs, known as baltigiya, who have mowed down an estimated 150 unarmed protesters since February, the demonstrations have continued to grow.
In the last four months, Yemen’s youth movement has morphed into a socio-demographic Frankenstein that includes students, Islamists, socialists, former southern separatists, human rights activists, defected military officers, and members of various tribes, including some from the Hashid, Yemen’s most powerful tribe that counts Saleh himself as a member. Yemen’s formal coalition of opposition political parties, the Joint Meetings Party (JMP)—itself a strange amalgamation of ideological opposites—represents some portion of the protesters, although certainly not all of them, and has been attempting to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the president since February.
On Sunday, Saleh reneged for the third time in a row on his public promise to sign a deal that would allow for a peaceful transition of power in Yemen. The deal had been sweetened considerably by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States, both of which are desperate to keep Yemen, where Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula has its base, from descending into chaos. The deal would have granted Saleh full immunity from prosecution and allowed his ruling party to continue to control fifty percent of the new government.
But at the eleventh hour, Saleh refused to pick up the pen, and a throng of baltigiya—“his Rent-A-Mob,” one protester quipped—blocked the road leading to the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Sana’a, trapping a group of diplomats, including the U.S. and British ambassadors, who had gathered to watch the president sign the accord. The next day, an all-out street battle erupted in the capital’s swanky Hassaba neighborhood, as government forces in tanks fought defected members of the Yemeni military and tribesmen from the wealthy al-Ahmar family, whose patriarch, Sadiq al-Ahmar, heads the powerful Hashid tribe. While Sadiq al-Ahmar has not publicly broken with the president, two of his influential brothers have. The tribesmen, for their part, shelled the Ministry of Interior building and took over various government buildings throughout the day.
The result of Sunday’s dramatic political standoff, combined with the pitched street battles that have continued through Thursday, is that a sizable portion of the youth protesters and tribes allied against Saleh no longer have confidence in seeking a negotiated settlement with the regime. This is due in part to the fact that the JMP lost all credibility with the protesters after agreeing to the deal that Saleh refused to sign on Sunday. The protesters argued it let Saleh off the hook too easily and, by allowing his party to continue to rule, it betrayed the core principles of the revolution.
And in the months that the JMP has spent waffling and quibbling over details of botched deals in boardrooms, the diverse and factionalized protest movement itself has, against all odds, developed a political voice of its own. The so-called Youth Revolution for Change has officially wearied of negotiations with Saleh and expanded its ambitions beyond the terms of a possible settlement. Instead, it wants a revolution, and it wants it now. “People are getting impatient. They don’t want to negotiate with the president,” says Shatha al-Harazi, a young reporter at the Yemen Times. “They want regime change.” But after four months of sustained, non-violent protests across Yemen, how best to bring that about is increasingly unclear. “There’s talk of marching on the [Presidential] Palace. It’s a dangerous move, and it will mean violence,” says al-Harazi. “But some people are beginning to think violence is the only way.”
The youth movement’s official leadership, however, maintains that violence will only strengthen Saleh’s hand. Jamal Nassar, a spokesman for the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution for Change, says the leadership is still counseling peace and patience. Although he admits that keeping hundreds of thousands of protesters, all of whom have immediate access to weapons—Yemen is one of the most highly-armed nations in the world—from resorting to violence will be an uphill struggle. “Arms are abundantly available, it’s true. But we must choose not to use them,” he says. “Our revolution is different than the revolution in Egypt. Here, the president has the money, the army, and the power. If Saleh forces us into a violent civil war, he will win.”
Indeed, Saleh has managed to balance atop a highly factionalized nation for thirty-two years, surviving two civil wars and outliving nearly all his political rivals. He has proven himself a brilliant, if unabashedly Machiavellian, political tactician, and Nassar cautions against underestimating him. “Sparking violence and chaos is his last card,” he said. “If there is civil war, Saleh will be victorious. He will be able to regain his credibility by showing the international community that he is necessary to keep Yemen from being ‘al-Qaedastan.’” In other words, if a full-blown civil war breaks out, the Coordinating Council fears that the United States and the GCC will back away from pressuring Saleh to leave and revert back to their old ways of buttressing the existing military and governmental institutions in order to keep the peace.
From his home in Aden, a port city in Yemen’s long restive south, Mahdi—like Nassar and the other leaders of the youth movement in Yemen—is calling upon the international community to step in. “The U.S. and the EU have been supporting Saleh’s regime for years, and now it is time to put some serious pressure on him, to force him to step down. We don’t want a deal where half his government remains in power. We don’t want a civil war, but we’re done negotiating,” said Mahdi, sounding more like the energetic man I met three months ago on the crowded streets of Sana’a. “In a revolution, the people overthrow the regime,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “We’re done waiting for our revolution.”
Haley Sweetland Edwards is a journalist living in Tbilisi, Georgia. She recently lived in Yemen on a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
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