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Civil war threat

May 26, 2011

As the situation in Yemen becomes increasingly dire, with government and opposition forces trading gunfire, Deutsche Welle spoke with an expert who warned the country could become a failed state.

anti government protesters in local garments
Anti-government protesters demand the departure Ali Abdullah SalehImage: picture alliance/dpa

A day after international negotiations on the peaceful ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh failed, fighting exploded in the capital Sanaa. On Monday, elite troops loyal to Saleh attacked the house of rival Sheik Sadik al Ahmar, eye-witnesses said. Since then, the bloody battles between state security forces and opposition groups have continued to escalate. Observers the fighting may morph into a civil war - but can anything be done to stop it?

Deutsche Welle discussed the situation with Achim Vogt, a Yemen expert at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Amman, Jordan.

Deutsche Welle: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has refused to give up his power for the third time. In Sanaa, the capital, bloody between his supporters and opponents are getting bloodier and bloodier. Is the country facing a civil war?

Achim Vogt: It is hard to see where the developments in Yemen will go in the next few days and weeks. Signs point to an escalation of the situation. The president himself made it clear in his television speech; he said the opposition was responsible. And I'm afraid that the situation, especially in the capital Sanaa, will go out of control if something doesn't change fast that will lead to the planned signing of the Gulf Cooperation Council's accord.

Achim Vogt
'Signs point to an escalation' Vogt saysImage: Achim Voigt

Saleh is one of the West's allies in the region. What can the US, and the EU, do to make him give up his power?

I think these countries - the US, the Europeans and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council - will get together and discuss what the next steps should be. (On Sunday) there was a special meeting of foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where they discussed what steps to take, but without reaching any conclusions. We have to wait and see….up to now there has only been rhetorical and verbal signals, like the US Secretary of State, who said she was "disappointed."

That's not all we need but we have to send clear signals - possibly even through sanctions - to Yemen. Then the president will see that he won't be successful with these tactics in the long run.

In Yemen, Saleh is known as a tactician. Everything points to the fact that he won't give up power peacefully. Aside from civil war, what is a scenario for the future of this country?

The problem is, there is this situation in Sanaa. But in other large cities in the country … and beyond that even in the countryside - the situation is different than in the capital. I think the president is betting on the fact that he has a lot of supporters in the capital, and so he can pressure the opposition. Yet in reality they say the opposition is much more numerous than supporters of the president.

So you can actually only hope that - short of a political solution - the power of the people in the streets will lead to a quick solution. Otherwise it is a grim scenario, very negative. Because it inevitably leads to a long, drawn out civil war, and puts Yemen in danger of becoming a failed state.

Saleh says that without him, al Qaeda will take over power in the country. How strong is al Qaeda in Yemen today? Could they, in fact, take advantage of a power vacuum?

In the past weeks we have definitely seen signs that al Qaeda is capable of taking over certain provinces or parts of provinces, even militarily, but only together with local clans. Left to its own devices, al Qaeda is no threat to the stability of the country.

On the contrary, I have the feeling that the threat of al Qaeda is being instrumentalized by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has used them to gain military and financial support from the West and I see that kind of instrumentalization as a true danger for Yemen.

Hassan Znined interviewed Achim Vogt (jen)
Editor: Rob Mudge