Gunfire rattles through the night on the streets of Sana and word of the fallen spreads through neighborhoods and alleys of the ancient capital. The wounded are bandaged; the dead are buried in the morning. Things are so bad here and across Yemen, one man said, that the government can “no longer coax water” from the listless earth.
A land of harsh deserts and rugged mountains, Yemen is the orphan of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings, an out-of-the-way autocracy that has been unable for nine months to overthrow its longtime leader even as its economy implodes and an Al Qaeda affiliate battles security forces for control of villages and cities.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, wounded in a rocket attack in June, is recuperating in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Opponents press him to step down but Saleh and his family refuse to budge. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators swell through the nation’s streets amid heavily armed and divided tribes and a fractious army that could tip the country into civil war.
Explosions and bullets ripped through Sana again early Thursday. Hours before, in the southern city of Abyan, at least 14 people were killed in clashes between security forces and Islamist militants.
A recent offensive against the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula by the Yemeni military, which receives intelligence and logistical support from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, recaptured Zinjibar from rebels who had overrun the southern city in May. Government officials said the death toll in the three-month fight in Zinjibar and outlying villages stands at 280 soldiers and 300 Islamist militants. About 180,000 residents have been displaced.
“Al Qaeda is benefiting greatly from what is happening in Yemen,” said Saeed Ali Obaid Al-Jamhi, an expert on Islamic militants in the region. “Al Qaeda as an entity grows, feeds and becomes stronger in places with little stability.”
Washington is concerned that the chaos in Yemen — the Arab world’s poorest country — will allow Al Qaeda to extend its reach across the Arabian Peninsula and into the Horn of Africa. In recent years, the Al Qaeda branch, which reportedly has attracted scores of foreign fighters, has carried out assassination attempts in Saudi Arabia and tried to blow up U.S. airliners.
The U.S., along with Yemen’s neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council, has joined the chorus pressuring Saleh to step down. But the tribesman who has ruled the country for 33 years, and whose family controls much of the military and intelligence services, has repeatedly broken promises to resign. Saleh this week designated his vice president to negotiate a transfer of power, but the opposition quickly criticized the move as another ruse.
Months of squabbling and intrigue in the nation of about 24 million have created a tense and violent limbo of thousands of refugees and an imperiled economy. Food prices are spiraling upward and water bills in a land prone to drought have jumped three-to-sevenfold.
The crisis “has cost the economy as much as $8 billion, and immediate aid is needed to prevent a collapse and failure of the state,” said Hisham Sharaf, the minister of trade and industry.
Yemen’s uprising began last winter as protesters in Tunisia and Egypt were also taking to the streets. But while the autocrats in those countries, and more recently in Libya, were toppled, activists in Yemen have been stymied by a leadership that for years has manipulated tribes and exploited the country’s instability.
Opposition groups claim Saleh is intentionally allowing the militants to make inroads to dramatize the anarchy that would unfold if he were deposed.
On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said hundreds of Yemeni protesters had been killed by “excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force” by the state.
“Yemen is not like Tunisia, or Egypt, or Libya, or Syria,” countered Ahmed al-Sofi, media advisor for Saleh. “Yemen has a culture and society of its own that is still deeply rooted in its old norms. Modernity is prevailing in all the other countries, but in Yemen it is still crawling.”
For much of the year, demonstrators have been camped in a sprawling tent city near the university in Sana, flying banners and singing protest songs on a stage. But unity among the antigovernment forces — focusing solely on the goal of deposing Saleh — has splintered. Those connected to political parties have separated from independent student activists and religious elements loyal to cleric Sheik Abdul Majeed Zindani, who wants to replace the government with an Islamic state.
“The protests were the first and real driving force behind the recognition of the importance of change, but they have not reached their goal,” said Zuhair Ali Ahmed, a demonstrator in Sana. “They are not united in their views.”
Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent al-Aalayaa from Sana.