Today, Saleh’s support among his top generals is dwindling. Of Yemen’s four regional commanders, only Southern Command Chief General Mahdi Maqwala still backs Saleh. Lesser lieutenant generals have deserted the president in droves.
The fate of the country may not hinge on Saleh, a crafty veteran who knows that his career is over. However, his son Ahmad, who is less politically astute, may yet seek to settle accounts with al-Ahmar. Ahmad’s forces have already clashed with rival units in Mukalla and surrounded the presidential palace in Aden.
If the Salehs retain control of the air force, which remains under the control of Saleh’s half-brother, employing it against defecting military divisions would likely lead to a bloodbath.
Nevertheless, the doomsday scenarios predicting anarchy and chaos in the post-Saleh era are most likely exaggerated. Unlike in Egypt, the vacuum resulting from Saleh’s departure can be quickly filled, so the country need not fall back on a military oligarchy. The Yemeni opposition is not only organized, but also plays an active role in politics and has true grassroots support.
And, unlike in Egypt, where the governing party was detested and out of touch with the masses, the General People’s Congress has some following in society. If Saleh leaves peacefully and represses the urge to unleash the last remaining loyal army units against protesters and defecting soldiers, the country can avert Libya-like mayhem. Indeed, the opposition parties have already organized a transitional council to take Saleh’s place.
With the sun quickly setting on the Saleh era, the president is out of options. The only decision before him and his thinning ranks of allies is whether to leave peacefully or go down fighting.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation.
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