SANA’A — It was during moments on our rooftop earlier this week — seeing flashes in the air and hearing the heavy pounding of gun fire — when we realized that Yemen’s capital city Sana’a was no longer as safe as we had hoped.
Violent killings were spreading fast and bloodshed was no longer contained within areas where anti-government protesters clashed with security forces.
Opposition parties, their supporters and apolitical protesters had mostly called for a "peaceful revolution" since mid-January. Their tactic has been to place pressure on Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to leave the office he has held onto since 1978. This week’s battles were a clear message that the fight to eliminate the 69-year-old leader of the Arab world’s poorest and most unstable nation had taken a new direction.
The shootings all apparently started because of a roadblock. Gunmen aligned to tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar and government troops clashed when military roadblocks closed in too near the al-Ahmar compound.
Day-after-day of shootings in the al-Hasaba neighborhood where al-Ahmar lives have plunged the city into further instability.
Already, there have been weeks of fuel, diesel and gas shortages. Long queues of cars waiting to fill up at petrol stations are common at any given hour of the day. The cost of gas used for cooking has doubled. Rattling diesel-powered electricity generators have drowned out the joyous sounds of the capital. Shootings have led al-Hasaba residents to flee the area.
There has yet been no truce to end the shootout between the al-Ahmar and Saleh forces. Al-Ahmar is the leader of the strongest tribe — Hashid — in Yemen and is the brother of main opposition party leader Hamid al-Ahmar. He has the firepower and troops to endure a battle with the president. And he would likely continue doing so since Saleh last week issued a warrant for his arrest.
Hamid al-Ahmar meanwhile is a multi-billionaire who wants the president’s seat. As leader of Islah, a party that claims its basis in Islam, he has partly funded an anti-Saleh movement to gain support for his presidential bid.
This latest battle between the wealthy al-Ahmar family and the government is not widely supported by citizens though. Anti-government protesters at Change Square have started physically marking and moving into spaces that support opposition political parties and those who don’t. The tent village at Change Square is the main anti-Saleh sit-in demonstration site located at the gates of the capital’s Sana’a University.
Youth protesters have said that they would stand with the opposition parties against Saleh but would not blindly accept opposition leadership at protest sites or in government. Protesters have felt disgruntled at being used by the opposition in what Saleh has called a "gradual coup".
Some have dubbed Yemen’s crisis the "endless revolution" in the Arab world — meanwhile the death toll is climbing. Roaring gun fire between al-Ahmar’s armed men and the government security forces last week reportedly resulted in a body count of 80.
The chaos was anticipated though and had already gripped Sana’a last Sunday when Saleh was expected to sign the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement outlining his exit. Opposition parties had signed it the previous day but Saleh said that he wanted them to sign it with him at his presidential premises.
That they were not willing to do so was reason enough for the leader to back out of the deal after saying all along — since it was introduced almost two months ago — that he was willing to sign on. The GCC agreement would have guaranteed his exit 30 days after signing. In return, he would be ensured immunity.
Citizen-led road blocks sprang up across Sana’a last week. Saleh’s supporters closed all roads leading to his compound and demanded that he not sign the GCC deal. His conflicting statements indicated first that he was still prepared to sign the deal — which has now been suspended by Gulf leaders — but then also that he intended to stay in power until the end of his elected term in 2013.
The al-Ahmar tribal leaders were clearer on their position. They want Saleh out as soon as possible. To gain a grip on the capital city, al-Ahmar gunmen have taken control of various government buildings. They tried seizing power of the state-run news agency Saba and they set fire to the Yemenia Airlines building. Fears of an impending civil war are forcing Yemenis to seek safety in their villages outside the capital.
Various airlines canceled incoming and out-bound flights. A tense week of get-out-now amidst water and electricity cuts across the capital unfolded. At a farewell pizza party for a friend who left the country this week we held candles because the lights had been out for hours. The next evening another friend had to stay one more night in Sana’a because his Ethiopian Airlines flight had been canceled. A close friend who works for the U.N. was evacuated Friday morning. It is just not safe.
A host of governments have urged their nationals to leave Yemen while commercial flights are still available. The airport was believed to be closed as gun battles crept closer to it.
Saleh is facing a crisis that is becoming an international headache while he repeatedly reiterates that the matter can be resolved internally. Even his strongest allies are now urging him to quit. The US has supported Saleh with weapons and a budget of millions to fight al-Qaeda. The US government is now dealing with him as it did Hosni Mubarak, of Egypt — it said last week that he should sign the GCC deal and relinquish power. Yet without regional support and echoes from all quarters for him to step down he refuses to do so. Saleh’s departure is viewed as the one factor that can save Yemen from civil war.
For now, Sana’a is not sleeping easily. One evening this week, we went to bed at 2:30am to the sounds of warfare. When we opened our eyes at 8:30am, the unsettling combat was continuing on unchanged. It was like we had not gone to sleep at all.
All around us, wherever we drive, road blocks and dark streets surround us. Armed neighborhood watch groups stop cars entering their areas to check if occupants are residents, as looting is now a possibility too. Yemen stands on the brink of — for better or worse.
(Inter Press Service)