Breaking daggers

This week and last have brought few if any real developments in Yemen. Daily life for most Yemenis gets harder day by day, as water, fuel, and money run out. Politicians continue to bicker and play for points, and the remnants of the regime continue to lash out at their enemies. At present, we can see the regime using a few different kinds of violence. There is the violence of deprivation, experienced by people all over the country. In Arhab, Nihm, and Ta‘iz, Republican Guard units launch artillery barrages against civilian neighborhoods. In Abyan artillery is complemented by air strikes and ground attacks. In Lahj and 'Aden, it seems that regime agents may be responsible for sporadic, random incidents of gunfire and the like. In this post, I'm less concerned with detailing such acts of violence than with looking at the motivations behind them.

Essentially, I want to look at the regime's use of what anthropologists call "symbolic violence," what political scientists would refer to as "signalling." The best academic treatments of symbolic violence in Yemeni society can be found in Shelagh Weir's A Tribal Order and Steve Caton's Yemen Chronical. The basic point they make, in reference to uses of violence among Yemen's northern tribes, is that in the tribal context a violent act is usually intended primarily as a means of communication. This does not mean that the violence isn't "real," that people don't get hurt; rather, it means that the primary function of such violence isn't to harm or to kill, but to signal an intention or a demand.

To give a basic example: if a tribesman feels he has been wronged in some way by another tribesman, he may attack his enemy in a public place, where neutral bystanders will be present. He does this because tribal law, 'urf, forbids "ganging up" and requires bystanders to intervene in such a situation. He's not attacking because he wants to hurt or kill the other man, but because he wants a third party to mediate and provide him with redress for his grievances. The same principle applies to bigger acts of violence within the tribal system, even pitched battles or prolonged wars between tribal factions. People are hurt and killed in such events, but the violence always retains a symbolic and communicative dimension as well.

For most of Yemen's history, violence between the state and other segments of society has tended to follow these precepts as well, though some rulers have been more willing than others to use extreme force to subdue unruly subjects (Ahmad ibn Yahya Hamid al-Din, the last real Imam of Yemen, was one such ruler, and his violent tendencies were a big part of why he inspired the overthrow of the imamate). But violating the social norms of symbolic violence is also a symbolic act. 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh is a legendary violator of tribal law and social order; and much like Imam Ahmad, Saleh's crimes against these norms are directly responsible for the fact that he's now in a hospital bed covered with burns. And I believe that we can see in each of his crimes--each of his unacceptable uses of violence--a clear message to his opponents.

I'm not going to go too far back into the past in this blog post, because I tend to get a bit wordy as it is, but suffice it to say that the civil wars of 1994 and 2004-2010 were marked by excesses intended to send certain messages to Saleh's enemies and to outside observers. Here I'm just going to look at some of the regime's uses of violence since the start of the 2011 revolution--using two specific but representative examples--and what I think they mean.

On a number of occasions, forces directly answerable to the president have committed acts that are flagrant violations of Yemeni social codes of honor and decency. One that comes to mind, from mid-April, was the kidnapping of four female medical volunteers on their way to Change Square in San‘a. This one doesn't take much explaining: male security forces--maybe soldiers, maybe paid thugs--physically grabbed and abducted women, and not just women, but women doctors. Just in case violating Yemeni social codes wasn't clear enough, the act violates international laws, or at least norms, about the protection of medical aid providers in a conflict zone. This incident came a month after the Change Square massacre, at a time when the youth and other protesters were demonstrating their strength and resilience with great effect and the movement was drawing in new tribal and political allies by the minute.

The regime's intended message with this abduction was clear: Saleh and his security forces would make no consideration for decency in their campaign against protesters; they would combat the revolution without any concern for honor. In fact, the abduction signals clearly that regime intended to fight dishonorably. This message, I believe, was entirely deliberate. It was intended to intimidate, and to signal (especially to the tribal factions of the revolution) that the regime was not interested in an honorable process of negotiation or mediation.

In the tribal/traditional system (non-tribal segments of society, like sadah and qudah, historically adhere to the same system), all negotiation and mediation is based on a recognition of mutual honor. Although it seems like a strange thing to do, the regime's goal was to do the opposite of what warring parties are supposed to do: the regime sought to demonstrate that it was without honor, and thus could not be bargained with. The regime pursued the same tactic throughout the Sa‘dah wars of 2004-2010.

This message was sent most explicitly on the morning of May 23, when Saleh's forces shelled the home of Shaykh Sadiq ibn 'Abdullah al-Ahmar, the paramount leader of the Hashid confederation. To attack the private home of such a man, without provocation, is one of the most shameful crimes that one can commit. This, and the fact that attacks on al-Ahmar's compound were launched while a mediation committee was present (seriously, Saleh?), sent Saleh's message in the clearest possible terms: the regime was not interested in coming to terms. The revolution would be crushed, not negotiated with, and not mediated away. I should note that it was Imam Ahmad's assassination of Shaykh Sadiq's grandfather and uncle that swung the bulk of Hashid's weight behind the Republican movement last century.

While such acts of violence are reprehensible, and especially disgusting within the traditional Yemeni frame of reference, Yemen has certainly been overshadowed, in terms of the ferocity of its regime, by Syria, Libya, and, I believe, Bahrain. The regimes in these countries have shown no mercy and no restraint in attacking their opponents, and they have the military capability--for now--to demonstrate this lack of restraint. In Yemen, however, we've seen what looks like a greater level of restraint. Yes, there have been terrible and costly attacks on unarmed protesters, most clearly the May 29 Freedom Square massacre in Ta‘iz. But it could all have been much worse (though maybe not in Abyan. Things seem to be almost as bad as they can get there). So we have a regime that signals no respect for rights or for laws, but security forces that fail to destroy the regime's enemies. What accounts for this gap?

I argue that it is, in fact, the inability of Saleh's security forces to crush the revolution that necessitates such extreme symbolic violence. Saleh, and now his son Ahmad and nephew Yahya, knows that his men just aren't up to the task. The Yemeni military has never been a reliable institution, and its commanders know that if the Republican Guard and the Central Security forces are pushed too far, they will disintegrate. This is why these forces now favor artillery barrages and other indirect applications of force. Since May 29, there has been no ground assault against protesters, and I get the feeling that none of the regime's commanders would feel confident in ordering such an attack. So, the symbolic demonstrations of ferocity were intended to scare the regime's opponents precisely because the regime knew it couldn't match such symbolic acts with real, effective violence.

And for the record, it didn't work. But the violence expended in the effort has been only too real for thousands of Yemenis.

On borrowed time, but how much?

Wednesday the 25th: the bloodiest day of street battles San‘a has seen since the start of the revolution. Accurate numbers aren't available, but it's possible today's fighting claimed more casualties than the March 18 massacre, or any of the massacres since. The obvious difference is that this was warfare, not a one-sided attack on unarmed protesters. And to be totally fair, the term "street battle" doesn't really cover it, since most of today's casualties came from artillery and rocket fire. On Tuesday, President Saleh's forces attacked the home of Sadiq al-Ahmar, oldest son of the late 'Abdullah al-Ahmar and current paramount shaykh of the mighty Hashid confederation of tribes. This alone would have been a bad move, but the timing of Saleh's attack made it an indefensible crime. Saleh's forces bombarded al-Ahmar's compound as the shaykh was hosting a mediation committee, come to negotiate an end to the fighting between Hashid and the president. A number of other notable shaykhs, not all of them from Hashid, were killed or wounded. The head of Yemen's Political Security organization was among them. This single incident has become a rallying point, and has brought the Bakil and Mur'ad tribal groupings into the San‘a conflict on the side of al-Ahmar.

On Wednesday the fighting and bombardment spread beyond al-Ahmar's neighborhood in north central San‘a. The airport seemed to be engulfed in fighting, and shells landed near Change Square as well, probably killing a number of soldiers from 'Ali Muhsin's 1st Armored Division (commonly known as al-Firqah, or "The Division").

But the significance of the tactic of bombardment goes beyond its potential to cause tons of casualties, among combatants and non-combatants alike. It goes beyond the fact that it raises specters of the Sa‘dah Wars, when civilians in Huthi-controlled areas were labeled as foreign enemies and infidels, unworthy of life or justice. What matters most about Saleh's tactic of choice is what it tells us about his range of options.

To make a long argument short, Saleh is relying on artillery and other medium- to long-range weapons because they are the only military assets he can trust. He's lost most of his military to the revolution; some of the units he has left are tactically worthless. A couple weeks ago, Saleh sent one of his younger sons--fresh out of Sandhurst but with the rank of Colonel--to subdue anti-regime protests in Hadhramawt at the head of a large, newly-formed mechanized unit. Their advance to the east was stopped by the tribes of Nihm, who forced the colonel to retreat, leaving behind his armor (which in Yemen is not so easily replaced).  In the south, the tribes of Yafi‘ forced the surrender of a Republican Guard garrison. The abandoned base and the villages that led the battle against the garrison were then bombed from the air, but the point had been made: Saleh's soldiers cannot, or will not, impose the president's rule by force.

Many soldiers are too young, or too old, or just untrained and unmotivated. Given the country's economic situation, they are likely unpaid. But there are also many in the Republican Guard and other loyal units who have personal ties to those they're being asked to kill. Now that Saleh has violated tribal law and gone to war with nearly all the tribes of Yemen, this is even more the case. There are today very few soldiers under the president's command who will be willing to kill for him, face to face, in street or mountain combat. His once-stalwart air force is divided as well, with some ranking officers defecting and a general shortage of planes, parts, and fuel.

But I'm getting away from the intended subject of this post, which was the people on the other side of the artillery. Since March just about every segment of Yemeni society, with the exception of his own immediate family and those they command, has been united against President Saleh. Huthis, Southern secessionists, Hashid, Bakil, Mur'ad, Yafi‘, you name it, they all called for the fall of the regime. Many of us thought and hoped that this united show of will would be enough to convince Saleh that his time was up. All of the tribes thought that the threat of their presence in San‘a would be enough to dissuade any more attacks. Clearly this was not the case. Now Saleh is testing the determination and unity of the tribes. His goal is the same as it has been since February: outlast the opposition.

The GCC deal was perfect for Saleh. Its content was abhorrent to most of the revolutionary factions, but it offered a way out. He hoped that it would splinter the opposition, draw the JMP leadership and the traditional elite away from the Youth. It didn't. Now that the tribes have taken his bait and started fighting, his hope is the same. First, he figures, the tribes and other armed groups will put themselves at odds with the Youth. Then, eventually, they'll turn on each other. All he has to do is survive long enough to reap the benefits.

This is not an unlikely path for events to take, now that fighting has begun in San‘a. Violence in Yemen can mean many things: in the tribal context, violence is usually symbolic, even when bloody (I'll be writing more about the symbolic value of violence during the current revolution in another post); in the political context, violence has sometimes served as a currency, a means by which power is transfered from one faction to another (from Socialists to Islamists, for example, during the 1994 war). But one universal truth about violence is that it is very good at perpetuating itself. Right now all the armed factions in Yemen may have a single enemy, but for this two-sided war to turn into a twenty-sided one, all that is required is time.

Back when the Yemeni revolution was just a twinkle in the eye of a few brave activists, analyst Gregory Johnsen made a conditional prediction: that revolution in Yemen would only stand a chance of taking off if 1) popular protest could break free of the mainstream opposition and sustain itself outside of the JMP, and 2) the Egyptian revolution was successful in deposing Hosni Mubarak (I think I'm summarizing accurately). In that spirit, I'm going to make my own prediction: that 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh will survive in some position of power only if 1) major conflicts erupt among the important armed factions currently opposing him, and 2) Saudi Arabia and the US re-change their minds and throw their full weight behind Saleh again.

The first of these conditions is not too unlikely. As for the second, I can see the US re-backing Saleh, because they haven't fully un-backed him yet, and because the Obama administration lacks any kind of real vision for Yemen. But I doubt the Saudis will go back to supporting Saleh against all enemies. Unlike the US, they understand Yemen, and they recognize that Saleh is no longer as useful to them as many of his rivals are or could be.

I've been wrong before, including a few times in public and on this blog. What I'm offering here are my best guesses, based on a  good deal of research and hard thought. Your responses are welcome.