Divided army threatens Yemen move to democracy

Units loyal to former Yemeni leader Saleh flex their muscles as new president finds it hard to exercise control.

Yemeni army recaptures ground from militants 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yemeni army recaptures ground from militants 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
SANA’A - When former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down last year, many Yemenis hoped their country was on the road to democracy. But much of the country’s military remains loyal to Saleh and new President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi is finding it hard to exercise his control over them.
The former president’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, remains in control of the Republican Guard. Recently, some 200 members of the elite unit marched to the Defense Ministry in the capital Sana’a to protest Hadi’s decision to form his own presidential protection force. Until now, the Republican Guard has been responsible for protecting the president.
As the soldiers marched with their guns and rocket-propelled grenades [RPGs] on display, some argued with Yemeni citizens. “They blocked vehicles on the street, got me and all the passengers out of our van after they saw me taking photos of them with the camera of my cell-phone,” Ahmed Dawood, a journalist at the local Yemen Times newspaper told The Media Line. “They pointed their guns at me and asked me to give them my cell-phone,” he added, “but, after I explained that there was no memory card in the phone they left me.”
Since last February, when Hadi replaced Saleh after his 33-year-long reign, the new president has been governing from his house, guarded by the 1st Armored Division, which sided against Saleh in the popular uprising. Hadi has not felt secure enough to move into the Presidential Palace. But now, Hadi is trying to solidify his control over Yemen’s military’s many disparate units.
He recently took control of seven brigades that had been commanded by Saleh’s son, Ahmed, as well as another five which had been under control of General Ali Mohsen, Saleh’s rival.
The Gulf Countries Council [GCC] transition plan which removed Saleh from office stipulates that Yemen’s armed forces become more professional. But the Saleh regime still exerts military power through the Republican Guard, which constitutes one-third of Yemen’s 300,000 military personnel, according to Mohamed Abd Al-Sallam, director of Abaad Strategic Studies Center, a think-tank based in Sana’a. “If no serious actions to remove Saleh’s relatives from their offices are taken, they will continue to hinder the peaceful transfer of power,” Abd Al-Sallam told The Media Line.
Al-Sallam said Saleh also continues to hold powerful positions in civil institutions. “Their resignations must be done gradually, as getting rid of them is not that easy,” he said.
Saleh still heads the General People’s Congress [GPC], a party that he established in 1982. The party ruled Yemen until the popular uprising in 2011 that ultimately brought about Saleh’s resignation. Despite the fact he no longer holds office, Saleh’s supporters still call him “president” or “leader.”
“Saleh’s remaining at the helm of the GPC is not only a threat to the power transition, but also endangers the party itself," Al-Allam explained.
However, some in the party argue that Yemen is well on the road to democracy. ”Ali Abdullah Saleh has left office and the positions of his relatives are governed by military and civil laws,” Tariq Al-Shami, the head of the Media Department of the GPC told The Media Line. Al-Shami explained that the decision to remove Saleh as party chief must be taken by the members of the GPC.
Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed, remains firmly in control of the Republican Guard, the elite wing of Yemen’s army, which has some 36 brigades nationwide, each equipped with the most modern weapons. General Mohamed Ali Mohsen, the former commander of the Eastern Military Command, said this year that since 1994, no new weapons have entered the hands of any Yemeni armed forces except the Republican Guard.
Yahya Mohamed Abdullah Saleh, the former president’s nephew, is the chief-of-staff of the Central Security Forces. He is one of hundreds of senior officials at several military, security and civil institutions who are still loyal to Saleh.
Late last year, Saleh’s son launched his own private satellite television channel, Yemen Today, which defends his father’s regime day and night. The channel has also a private radio station, Yemen FM, which transmits throughout Yemeni territory, providing glorified accounts of Saleh even to inhabitants of rural areas that lack basic amenities such as electricity.
Some opponents charge Saleh’s military units with widespread corruption. A source at the Ministry of Defense told The Media Line that officers of the 3rd Republican Guard Brigade who are loyal to Saleh are alleged to have recently stolen weapons and military trucks in collusion with departments of the defense ministry.
Last month, Saleh-loyalists who are members of the police force stormed the Interior Ministry in the capital Sana’a, left eight people dead in a clash with security guards, and stole documents, equipment and weapons.
In 1994, Saleh began a civil war with his then-deputy, Ali Salem Al-Baid, who was defeated and fled to Oman. However, since Saleh’s forced retirement, the two men are said to be cooperating to scupper the two-year transitional period which is to be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections.
“They [Al-Baid and Saleh] are in an alliance and each one has his own aims,” the think-tank’s Al-Salaam said. “Al-Baid is looking to return to politics and Saleh aims for internal conflict that will enable his son to rule Yemen,” he explained.
Saleh left the office in exchange for immunity from prosecution - an offer not made to his counterpart, Egypt’s ousted president Hosni Mubarak, who is currently serving a life-sentence in prison. The deal also does not obligate Saleh to stay out of politics. Saleh remains strong and active within the political landscape through his relatives and aides.
Many fear that if Saleh continues to act as a shadow president, Yemen’s two-year transitional period may extend indefinitely amid political insecurity and economic deterioration.
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