As 2011 began, Yemen’s government proposed constitutional changes that would enable the country’s long-ruling President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to retain power indefinitely and possibly enable his sons to continue on after him. The proposals sparked an almost immediate, furious outpouring of protest, with students, civil society activists and others rallying in the capital Sana’a. As protests spread to other cities, the President Saleh announced a series of concessions but intended to remain in office until 2013.
Tens of thousands of people continued to demonstrate across the country despite increasingly violent responses by the security forces and a mounting toll of killings. On March 18, 2011, government snipers killed at least 52 peaceful protesters in “Change Square” protest camp in Sana’a. Some senior government ministers and others resigned and General Ali Mohsen, commander of the army’s First Brigade, announced that he and his troops would back the protesters. In response, President Saleh dismissed the cabinet and imposed a 30-day state of emergency which suspended the Constitution, increased media censorship, and extended security forces powers of arrest and detention and to ban street protests.
Clinging to power
As conditions deteriorated, the Saudi Arabia-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sought to mediate between President Saleh and the parties opposing him. President Saleh refused at least three times to sign a proposed GCC agreement after saying he would do so, sparking further demonstrations and killings of protesters.
In early June, an attack on the presidential palace killed several people and seriously wounded the President and others, who were evacuated to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi assumed power temporarily while an opposition alliance, the National Council for the Revolutionary Forces, was formed in August but quickly became divided. An uneasy stalemate developed with continuing sporadic armed clashes and killings, leading many to fear the country was slipping into civil war and prompting further action from the international community.
Mandated by the Human Rights Council, a UN fact-finding team in June-July documented serious and widespread abuses of human rights, including grossly excessive use of force. It called, among other things, for an independent international investigation and for those responsible to be held accountable.
On September 23, 2011, President Saleh resumed power in Sana’a. His return prompted rival mass demonstrations by his supporters and opponents, including vast anti-government demonstrations. On October 7, a leading pro-reform activist, Tawakkol Karman, was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Striking an Immunity Deal
On October 21, the UN Security Council condemned the continuing violence and demanded that President Saleh leave power in accordance with the agreement previously put forward by the GCC. On November 23, 2011 President Saleh finally consented, agreeing to transfer power to the Vice President to begin implementation of the agreement. This provides for the prompt formation of a “government of national reconciliation” in which the ruling party and opposition parties are equally represented and share power, and new presidential elections to be held within 90 days. In return, President Saleh and some of his associates were to be given immunity against prosecution for crimes committed under his administration, both during the 2011 protests and throughout the long period of his rule. Many Yemenis, especially young people and other groups left out of the process, have denounced the immunity clause and vowed not to accept it.
Following the agreement, Vice President Hadi appointed Mohammed Salim Basindwa, the opposition’s nominee, as Prime Minister on November 27. On December 7 a national government was formed with representation of both the ruling party and members of the opposition.
A difficult future ahead
For decades the government of President Saleh undermined the rule of law, committed human rights violations with impunity and was mired in allegations of corruption. Regional conflicts continue in the country, including the Huthis in the north, against whom government forces had repeatedly fought in recent years; the Southern Movement, based around Aden, that advocates greater autonomy or the secession of the south; and mainstream pro-reform activists determined to break the President’s grip over Yemen.
At the same time, armed Islamist militants believed to be linked to al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula are reported to be increasingly active in parts of Abyan including in Zinjibar, where they were attacked by US forces using drones and Yemeni airforce jets. Some 100,000 people were said to have been displaced from these areas. On September 30, 2011, US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, said to have been behind an attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit in December 2009, and three others were reportedly killed by a US drone strike.
Security forces continue to crackdown on periodic protests. In July 2012, Central Security Forces and snipers opened fire on a peaceful demonstration and march in the southern port city of Aden killing at least three people. The following month, security forces arrested five students and political activists engaged in peaceful protests.
Photos: A Yemeni protester with Arabic writing on his hands which read 'get angry' takes part in a demonstration in Sanaa on December 6, 2012. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images