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Patchwork opposition in Yemen unlikely to remain united

After weeks of political unrest in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime appears on the verge of collapse. But the protest movement, united only in its opposition to Saleh, may fragment if the president resigns.

Yemeni protesters

Protests have gripped Yemen for weeks

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has effectively lost his authority after ruling Yemen for over 30 years. There have been 100 deaths in the past month as rebellion grips the entire country. And the defection of military officials to the opposition movement has deprived the government of its ability to put the uprising down.

"The number of people who have joined in with the protests has grown and expanded to include people as diverse as southern secessionists, northern rebels, tribesmen from some of the hinterlands as well as student activists," Gregory Johnsen, an internationally renowned Yemen expert at Princeton University, told Deutsche Welle.

"And as we saw yesterday members of his own political party as well as military officials."

Johnsen says that the dictator has managed to hang on to power for so long by mastering a system of patronage. For years, Saleh has played off his internal rivals against one another.

"He's managed to keep them all focused on one another as opposed to concentrating their energy and focus on him at the center," Johnsen said. "And so what we see happening right now is what he's always feared and that's all his enemies are joining into an alliance of convenience and focusing on him.

"And he's not going to be able to survive that."

Saleh's patronage system

Saleh was written off once before when he first came to power in 1978, according to Elham Manea. Manea was born in Egypt, is a Yemeni citizen and teaches political science at the University of Zurich.

"Nobody thought he would stay in power for more than a couple of months before he would be ousted or killed," Manea told Deutsche Welle.

But Saleh turned himself into a master of political survival by perfecting a system of nepotism that put family members in strategically important positions and bought off opponents.

protesters holding spent bullet shells

Security forces have fired on protesters with live ammunition

However, Saleh has lost the financial means he once used to maintain his grip on power. Oil production, which constitutes 75 percent of the state budget, has been declining for years. Meanwhile, public expenditures have ballooned as the population grows rapidly and unemployment hovers around a dismal 35 percent.

Manea says this precarious situation drove the educated youth in the urban centers of Sa'dah, Sana'a and Ta'izz to revolt. However, she identifies deeper sources of the current conflict related to Yemen's tribal structure and religious demography. According to Manea, the former British crown colony is in a permanent state of fragility.

Feuding north, secessionist south

In the North of Yemen, on the border with Saudi Arabia, the Houthi clan has been rebelling against the central government for years. The Houthis are a Hashemite tribe and are practitioners of Zaidism, a sect of Shiite Islam. Zaidis consider themselves descendents of a member of the Prophet Muhammad's family, who left Iraq in the ninth century and settled in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. President Saleh himself is a Zaidi, but also is a member of the Sanhan tribe, the arch rival of the Houthis.

The tribal feuds are responsible for the persistent violence in North Yemen, which Saleh stokes to his own advantage. After labeling the Houthis al-Qaeda sympathizers, Saleh became an ally of the West and began receiving financial support. And Saudi Arabia intervenes in Yemen to the benefit of Saleh. The Wahhabi royal house in Riyadh views the Shiite Houthi rebels as proxies for Iran.

In addition to the conflict in the north, Saleh faces a secessionist struggle in the south. After the reunification of Yemen in 1990, a civil war broke out in 1994 which was won by the north and made the south feel oppressed.

"When it comes to the south of Yemen, we have a nationalistic aspiration of a certain population which demands separation from a united Yemen," Manea said.

The conflict has not been resolved after raging for more than 10 years, and the secessionist movement continues to demand its own state.

Failed state?

Yemen could descend into chaos. The two on-going conflicts, the presence of a virulent al-Qaeda branch, as well as the rampant corruption and lack of strong state institutions do not bode well for the country. And with an estimated 50 million weapons floating around, Yemen is a power-keg waiting to explode. Ali Abdullah Saleh, so it seems, can no longer stamp out the lit fuse. So will Yemen turn into a failed state?

Yemeni President Saleh

President Saleh's regime appears on the brink of collapse

"There's going to have to be some sort of a political transition whether it's a peaceful one or it's a violent one," Johnsen said.

Much still depends on President Saleh. Johnsen does not think it is likely that the protest movement will be able to form a functioning alliance that could govern the country should Saleh step down.

"The alliance after president Saleh steps down will eventually disintegrate, fragment and fracture," Johnsen said. "But what sort of government is going to follow President Saleh at this point is still very much an open question."

Author: Dominik Peters/ sk
Editor: Rob Mudge

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