The Parallel Revolution in Yemen

March 6, 2012

Introduction

Yemen’s unrest has not ended with the ouster of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Yemeni Revolution instead has entered a new phase, the “Parallel Revolution,” a wave of labor strikes and protests against regime officials at state institutions and commercial enterprises across the country.[1] The dismissal of Saleh’s son-in-law Abdul Khaleq al Qadhi, the director of Yemenia Airways, on December 22, 2011 launched this second stage. The Parallel Revolution is an additional burden for the new Yemeni government, already facing challenges posed by two established opposition movements: the al Houthi rebels in northwestern Yemen and the southern secessionists. The new Yemeni government must also confront the daunting array of long-term structural problems. Moreover, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has steadily expanded its safe haven in the south over the past year through the gains of Ansar al Sharia, its insurgent arm.

American counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen has relied on local Yemeni forces and limited direct action operations to combat Ansar al Sharia and to pursue AQAP operatives with limited success. The Parallel Revolution has restricted the Yemeni government’s ability to fight these groups during an already fragile time of political transition. The new government headed by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi has pledged to continue military operations against AQAP and Ansar al Sharia. Its resources to pursue that fight are limited, however, and more exigent threats to its survival may divert its attention and assets. The Parallel Revolution poses a particular challenge in this regard because the protesters’ demands include replacing key officials within the Yemeni armed forces who are Saleh’s kin or cronies. Those demands could disrupt the continuity of operations if the new Yemeni government concedes to them, or they could generate new violence that will distract the government from the fight against AQAP if it refuses. Either way, although the demands of the Parallel Revolutionaries are eminently reasonable from an internal Yemeni standpoint, they are likely to put American counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen at risk.

The Parallel Revolution may already be generating friction within the government. There are indications that Hadi’s dismissal of some regime officials in response to the movement has strained his relationship with Saleh.[2] Saleh’s support will be essential for Hadi’s political effectiveness at least in the short-term because the wide network of the ex-president’s family and associates occupying the highest positions of power, which represents the core complaint of the Parallel Revolution, also allows Saleh to continue to exert tremendous influence over the government and military.

The Parallel Revolution has emerged in institutions of all sizes, ranging from local schools and factories to entire government ministries. It would be impossible to enumerate every significant manifestation of the Parallel Revolution since its inception in mid-December 2011, so the following list highlights the most prominent events over the past few months. The list is divided into military and non-military institutions.

 

Military and Security Apparatus Institutions

Air Force Mutiny: The Air Force mutiny, which has become the most widespread manifestation of the Parallel Revolution, began at Daylami Air Force Base in Sana’a on January 22, 2012. On that Sunday, 500 airmen gathered at the airfield, which is also the site of Sana’a’s international airport.[3] They demanded the dismissal of Air Force Commander General Mohammed Saleh al Ahmar, Saleh’s half-brother.[4] They closed down the shared airport runway until Central Security Forces and Special Guard Forces were deployed to disperse the demonstration.[5] About 200 protesters relocated to then-Vice President Hadi’s home, also in Sana’a, where they blocked major roads.[6] The significance of the mutiny was immediately apparent. The Chief of the General Staff, Major General Ahmed Ali al Ashwal, went in person to diffuse the situation and later participated in negotiations.

But negotiations and arrests failed to contain the mutiny. In the days that followed, the protests spread to three more air bases in the governorates of Taiz, Hudaydah, and Lahij.[7] Security forces again arrested protesters at these locations, further fueling the airmen’s anger.[8] The next day, the protests reached the governorates of Hadramawt, Ma’rib, and Aden. Airmen in Hudaydah city, a major port, were able to close the regional airport to military and civilian flights. Mutinying officers in Lahij threatened to turn al Anad airfield, Yemen’s largest air force base, over to al Qaeda.[9] Republican Guardsmen stormed Taiz’s Tariq air base and arrested mutinous airmen and officers.[10] As in Sana’a, the use of security forces to suppress the rebellion enraged the demonstrators. General Ahmar attempted to manage the mutiny by transferring a Tariq-based squadron to al Anad air base in order to break up the uprising and diffuse the unrest. He also transferred commanders from the Hudaydah base to manage the situation at Tariq.[11] The measures had only limited effect; in early February, a local commander was reportedly ejected by the men on the Taiz base.[12]

The Air Force mutiny continues across Yemen, but General Ahmar’s fate is unclear. A Yemeni newspaper reported in January that a temporary committee had been formed to oversee the Air Force in Ahmar’s stead.[13] Yemen’s military is scheduled to be restructured, which may appease the protesting airmen. Reports indicate that newly-elected transitional President Hadi plans to dismiss Ahmar, but there is no timeline for the move, and the general may not leave his post for some time.[14]

Republican Guard: The Republican Guard is one of the best-armed branches of the Yemeni military, and it is frequently deployed to protect regime interests.[15] This elite group of soldiers, who have been the backbone of the regime’s crackdown on dissidents during the past year, is commanded by Saleh’s oldest son, Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Ahmed Saleh preemptively purged the Republican Guard of any potentially mutinous elements, arresting dozens of suspected dissidents in December 2011 to prevent the mass defections and mutinies seen in other branches of the military and police force.[16] Ahmed also warned his men that defecting from the Guard in imitation of their peers in other wings of the Yemeni military would not be tolerated. These announcements were secret, and members of the Republican Guard disclosed them to the press only under the condition of anonymity.[17]

Despite Ahmed’s preemptive measures, the Republican Guard has not escaped the Parallel Revolution. The Fourth Brigade of the Republican Guard mutinied on January 28, 2012, blocking Taiz Road, a major route near their position at al Sawad camp in south Sana’a, and locked the brigade’s leadership out of its headquarters. The protesting guardsmen demanded the dismissal of the brigade commander, Brigadier General Mohammed al Arar, and other staff members.[18] The 62nd Brigade in Farijah Camp, north of Sana’a, also mutinied against its commander earlier in January.[19]

Ahmed’s name appears on a popular list circulated on the internet by the Yemeni revolutionaries. This list enumerates those who must be thrown out of office for the revolution to be considered complete.[20] Sources within the Yemeni military have called the dismissal of Ahmed Saleh impossible, at least for the first few months of Hadi’s government. The Republican Guard, they say, is essential to Saleh’s protection during the coming period of instability.[21]

Central Security Forces (CSF): The CSF is an elite paramilitary force run through the Interior Ministry, and like the Republican Guard, the CSF have been a weapon in countering revolutionary activity. Central Security forces were used to suppress the uprising of airmen in late January, and also to control protesters in the flashpoint city of Taiz.[22] They are headed by a nephew of the former president, Yahya Saleh, who is Chief of Staff for the CSF. Yahya Saleh ran the CSF through a purge similar to the one his brother conducted in the Republican Guard, with a series of arrests of possible rabble-rousers and private speeches warning against defections.[23]

Security Apparatus: Brigadier General Abdullah Qairan, head of security in Taiz governorate, was replaced in the backlash caused by months of his orchestrated attacks on protesters and local tribesmen. Qairan is a true insider of the Saleh circle. He met Saleh in person for the first time in 2000 and had been a part of Yemen’s police and security apparatus since 1983. Qairan impressed Saleh and subsequently rose through the ranks to become chief of security in Aden, where a separatist movement had begun, and then in Taiz during the Arab Spring.[24] Local Taizi officials attempted to remove Qairan from his position in late January 2012, and the Interior Ministry officially replaced him on January 31 with Abdul Karim al Odaini, who in turn was replaced by Ali al Saidi in February.[25]

The Parallel Revolution also targeted Sana’a’s head of security, Brigadier General Mohammed Saleh Turaiq. When officers and soldiers staged a protest against Turaiq outside the Sana’a Security Department on the morning of December 28, 2011, he sent out armed men to attack the strikers. The armed men were of Turaiq’s tribe, Murad, and were allegedly led by one of his relatives.[26] Two of the protesting security men were killed and three wounded.[27] The Interior Ministry promised to look into the possibility of dismissing Turaiq, but he remains in his position for now.

There is evidence that the mutiny against security directors has spread to other governorates. A video posted on YouTube on December 31, 2011 claims to show the chief of security in Hajjah governorate failing to fight his way into his office as mutinying security forces block the entrance.[28]

Police Mutiny: Policemen demanded the resignation of Police Chief and Deputy Interior Minister Mohammed Abdullah al Qawsi, who is reputed to be a relative of Saleh’s, on December 28, 2011. [29] They accused him of corruption and of withholding officers’ benefits. The police officers held up signs reading, “We are the soldiers of the people, not the soldiers of Qawsi.”[30] Qawsi reportedly brought out armed tribesmen to confront the protesters, and witnesses heard gunshots, though no casualties were reported in the immediate aftermath. Other police officers assigned to foreign embassy security withdrew from their posts in solidarity with their demonstrating colleagues.[31]

Subsidiary branches of the police force have also rebelled against their commanders. For instance, traffic police officers have protested in the major cities of Sana’a and Hudaydah.[32] In Hudaydah, traffic police officers rallied in front of the office of local traffic manager Abdullatif al Masri, who had been in office for more than 12 years. The policemen, who accused Masri of multiple crimes and “despotic behavior,” barred their commander from entering his office.[33] He was dismissed after the second day of continuous protests and replaced by Mohammed Mohammed Abdullah al Houthi.[34] The so-called “walking police” and the patrol police of Sana’a have also been affected by protests over the past months, in both cases against leaders accused of corruption and of withholding employee benefits.[35]

Coast Guard: Coast Guard officers and soldiers demonstrated in front of the Hudaydah Security Department on December 24, 2011 until the Red Sea Commander, Abdullah al Jalal, was expelled and replaced by Colonel Ahmed al Habtari.[36] Jalal was accused of stealing his men’s benefits, among other corrupt and illegal actions committed at the expense of his subordinates.[37] Hudaydah hosts one of twelve Coast Guard monitoring centers and is home to both the Naval and Coast Guard academies.[38]

Military Academies: Hundreds of students at the College of Aviation and Air Defense in central Sana’a staged a protest on campus and down the street in front of Hadi’s home, blocking major roads in the capital on December 20, 2011.[39] They demanded the removal of their dean, Saleh appointee and regime insider Hamoud al Sheikh. Sheikh comes from Saleh’s tribe and has been a supporter of the former president for years.[40] He, like so many others, was accused of corruption and cronyism. Only a few hours into the protest, Hadi replaced Sheikh with Abdullah Qasim al Juneid. Interestingly, Juneid is close to the defected General Ali Mohsen, and after the appointment, Saleh accused Hadi of colluding with the general.[41]

A similar coalition of officers and students at the Naval Academy in Hudaydah followed suit days later. Tariq Ali Muqaleh, a Saleh appointee, had been director of the academy for three years when the protests broke out on December 24, 2011.[42] Students accused Muqaleh of misusing funds intended for stipends, and of expelling students for insufficient reason. The protesters gathered outside the Naval Academy, cutting off the main road leading out to Ras al Kathib, a peninsula housing the city’s port. They also barred Muqaleh from entering his office.[43] Muqaleh was replaced soon after, according to reports from the Yemeni newspaper Akhbar al Yom.[44]

 

Non-Military Institutions

Yemenia Airways: The unions of pilots and mechanics at Yemenia Airways struck against their director, Abdul Khaleq al Qadhi, who is also Saleh’s son-in-law, in December 2011.[45] Qadhi was accused of bankrupting the company, specifically by making Yemenia’s annual earnings “disappear,” presumably into Qadhi’s personal bank account.[46] The strike was announced on December 17, 2011, and began in earnest on December 20, 2011, when all flights were grounded. Yemenia Airways is the national airline of Yemen, and the authorities responded quickly.[47] The Minister of Transportation formed a committee to run the company. Qadhi was suspended on December 22 and replaced by Ahmed Masood al Alwani. Qadhi himself appeared at the meeting when the transfer was decided and expressed his support for the handover, calling Alwani the man for the job. In Yemen the peaceful transfer was considered the first tangible success of the Parallel Revolution.[48] Qadhi’s permanent dismissal was unofficially set for after the elections, but has not been confirmed.[49]

Moral Guidance Department: Major General Ali Hassan al Shater is not a relative of Saleh, but he is a close associate and was Saleh’s go-to man within the armed forces. He has been a general for more than 25 years, and has held positions in government since before the beginning of Saleh’s presidency. Some even suspect him of complicity in the assassination of former president Ghashmi, which cleared the way for Saleh to take power.[50] His official position has been as head of the Armed Force’s Moral Guidance Department, where he has been the editor-in-chief of the influential army newspaper 26 September since the mid-seventies.[51] Employees picketed in front of the office of the Moral Guidance Department and barred Shater from his office in late December 2011. After taking over the premises, the protesters published an editorial in the prominent 26 September newspaper damning Shater for his corruption and connections within the regime. Shater was accused of taking workers’ salaries and food, and of jailing employees with no cause. Under pressure from the protesters, he was dismissed on December 31 and replaced by Brigadier General Yahya Abdullah al Saqladi.[52]

Yemen Economical Corporation: The Yemen Economical Corporation, formerly the Military Economic Institution, is a government organization commanding a sizeable secret budget.[53] Its funds are used to finance different branches of the military, and in the past year it has drawn particularly harsh fire for allegedly financing attacks on protesters during the Yemeni revolution. Its director, Hafez Mayad, is from Saleh’s tribe and has been close to the Saleh regime for years. Hundreds of employees of the institution struck against Mayad on December 28, 2011.[54] Witnesses reported that Mayad sent gunmen using live bullets to disperse the gathering.[55] Mayad remains in his position despite the blowback from the violence.

PetroMasila: Employees of PetroMasila oil company launched a full strike at Masila, Yemen’s largest oil field, on February 9, 2012.[56] The result was a complete halt in oil production from Masila for three days beginning February 14.[57] PetroMasila is a new national oil company which was formed to acquire and manage the Masila field after the Yemeni government denied a request from Nexen, a Canadian oil company, to renew their use of the field.[58] When the new PetroMasila was unable to award salaries and benefits matching the Nexen levels, strikers blamed corruption in the Oil Ministry and Oil Exploration Authority. Yemen’s public budget relies heavily on proceeds from oil exports, and the halt was a blow to the economy.

Media Institutions: Several government media companies have been affected by strikes. They include, but are not limited to, the state 14 October newspaper, based in Aden, SABA News, Yemen’s state news agency, the Sana’a state radio station, the Sana’a and Aden state television stations, and the Thawra Media Company, the most important Yemeni government media foundation, which was also briefly taken over by revolutionaries. [59] In February, the Thawra newspaper was reclaimed by Saleh supporters, but the editor-in-chief was replaced.

Universities: Universities in Sana’a, Hudaydah, Ibb, Aden, and Taiz have all been crippled by student strikes.[60] The students demand the dismissal of deans and professors whose appointments were based on party affiliation, and whom many of the students consider corrupt and unfit for their posts.

Central Organization for Control and Auditing, Aden: Employees at the Aden branch of the Central Organization for Control and Auditing protested against their director, Ibrahim Ali Haitham, on January 2, 2012. Employees struck outside their department office, barring Haitham from entry. Haitham responded by sending armed men to disperse the angry crowds. In the resulting mêlée, one of the strikers was killed.[61] The death increased the furor of the protests, and Haitham was dismissed two days later.[62]

Many Others: Many other government institutions have been affected by strikes since December 2011. The Department of Agriculture and Irrigation in Sana’a was hit by protests against its director. So was the Supreme Elections committee, where employees shut down the office and prevented their manager, Sultan al Hajeb, from entering the premises on January 25, 2012, just weeks before the presidential elections.[63] The employees announced that the strike would spread to all regional branches on February 1 if their demands of full payment of benefits were not met. The directors of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Industry and Trade were also targets of strikes and protests.[64] Both of these ministries saw turnover in their directors. The new minister of Industry and Trade is a veteran of anti-corruption work. He had once quit his job at the Anti-Corruption Department, because, remarkably, he was disgusted with the corruption he had witnessed in the position.[65] His appointment is a clear concession to the revolutionaries’ demands for a solution to government fraud and abuse.

At the local level, in almost every governorate strikes have affected many government and private offices and establishments, including schools, prisons, hospitals, and electricity and sanitation departments.[66]

 

The Continuing Challenge

Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi faces a predicament. His transitional government must avoid estranging the powerful Saleh holdovers, while at the same time appeasing the thousands of protesters who are demanding the removal of these powerful men. This is a problem that could impact American interests in Yemen, as the most significant threat posed by the Parallel Revolution is the way it has weakened the armed forces. Hadi has promised to fight AQAP, considered by many the most dangerous wing of al Qaeda, but will be unable to do so if the Yemeni military is weakened by internal strife or is out of Hadi’s control.

The Parallel Revolution has had the most success in non-military institutions; it deposed prominently placed Saleh insiders Ali Shater and Abdul Khaleq al Qadhi. On the military side, the movement has seen less success. Though protests have forced several dismissals in the military, these have mostly been at the local level, or in the academies. The cadre of Saleh’s closest relatives in the top echelon of the military and security force command structure have not been dislodged. Though Hadi is just now beginning to make changes in the higher levels, they are not substantial. For example, he removed Mahdi Maqwala, the commander of the Southern Military Zone, from his post last week, but the move was a reshuffling; Maqwala swapped positions with the Deputy Chief of General Staff for Manpower Affairs.[67] Meanwhile, protests continue across Yemen under the slogan, “Purge the army from the family!”[68] If Hadi fails to bring about genuine change in the armed forces’ core leadership, as he has promised to do, the crisis in the Yemeni military will continue to grow.        


[1] In Arabic, the Parallel Revolution is literally called the “revolution of institutions,” an allusion to its aim of ridding Yemen’s institutions, one by one, of the corruption left by Saleh’s regime.
[2] “List of symbols of corruption, acting president prepares to sack them while Saleh discusses his overstepping of his powers,” Mareb Press, December 23, 2011 [Arabic]. Available: http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?lang=arabic&sid=38987
[3] “Soldiers of Yemen’s Air Forces protest against their commander,” Yemen Post, January 22, 2012. Available: http://yemenpost.net/Detail123456789.aspx?ID=3&SubID=4560&MainCat=3
[4] “Mutinous troops demand Yemen Air Force chief ouster,” Agence France-Presse, January 23, 2012. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gVg-d6B_ZzwygZ8RAbfPMPLfvGqA?docId=CNG.f2aa3559729718e5b4dffcdfe0b84c2b.4b1
[5] Tom Finn, “Yemen’s ‘Parallel Revolution’ inspires street-level protests,” Reuters, January 27, 2012. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/27/us-yemen-strikes-idUSTRE80Q0RU20120127
[6] Ahmed Al-Haj, “Officers: Mutinies spread to 4 Yemen air bases,” Associated Press, January 23, 2012. Available: http://articles.boston.com/2012-01-23/news/30656208_1_air-base-saleh-step-taiz
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[7] Air support for the operation against Ansar al Sharia is run out of al Anad air base in Lahij.
[8] “Air Force men in Hadramawt governorate rise up to demand the resignation of Mohammed Saleh al Ahmar, and tear down pictures of President Saleh,” Mareb Press, January 24, 2012 [Arabic]. Available: http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?sid=39908&lng=arabic
[9] Manal al Qudsi, “Threats to hand al Anad to al Qaeda, the Air Force uprising expands to 7 governorates, al Ahmar refuses Hadi's decision and says that he will not leave al Daylami base except as a corpse,” Mareb Press, January 25, 2012 [Arabic]. Available: http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?sid=39925&lng=arabic
[10] Shadi Yasin, “Released prisoners tell al Masdar Online the details of the uprising at Tariq air base in Taiz,” al Masdar Online, February 2, 2012 [Arabic]. Available: http://www.almasdaronline.com/index.php?page=news&news_id=28370
[11] Manal al Qudsi, “The Republican Guard surrounds air base in Janad, Air Force’s Ahmar appoints leadership for Hudaydah, and Air Force leaders hold Hadi and Defense Minister responsible for sacking of base,” Mareb Press, January 26, 2012 [Arabic]. Available: http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?lang=arabic&sid=39961
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[13] Manal al Qudsi, “The Republican Guard surrounds air base in Janad, Air Force’s Ahmar appoints leadership for Hudaydah, and Air Force leaders hold Hadi and Defense Minister responsible for sacking of base,” Mareb Press, January 26, 2012 [Arabic]. Available: http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?lang=arabic&sid=39961
[14] Mohamed Bin Sallam, “Concerns over Hadi’s ability to reconstruct military and security services,” Yemen Times, February 23, 2012. Available: http://www.yementimes.com/en/1549/news/458
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[16] “In reversal, Saleh opts to stay in Yemen,” Associated Press, January 1, 2012. Available: http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2012-01-01/yemen-saleh/52313108/1
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[18] Mohamed Bin Sallam, “Concerns over Hadi’s ability to reconstruct military and security services,” Yemen Times, February 23, 2012. Available: http://www.yementimes.com/en/1549/news/458
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[22] “Soldiers of Yemen’s Air Forces protest against their Commander,” Yemen Post, January 22, 2012. Available: http://yemenpost.net/Detail123456789.aspx?ID=3&SubID=4560&MainCat=3
[23] “In reversal, Saleh opts to stay in Yemen,” Associated Press, January 1, 2012. Available: http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2012-01-01/yemen-saleh/52313108/1
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[31] “Soldiers of the Rescue Police protest demanding resignation of their leader, al Qawsi appointed to two tribal councils to suppress the demonstrations (Video),” al Masdar Online, December 29, 2011 [Arabic]. Available: http://almasdaronline.info/index.php?page=news&article-section=1&news_id=27093
[32] Brian Whitaker, “Yemen's 'Parallel Revolution,’” al-Bab, January 1, 2012. Available: http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2012/blog1201.htm
[33] Arif Al-Omari,” Revolution of society against corruption,” Yemen Fox, December 31, 2011. Available: http://yemenfox.net/news_details.php?sid=1523
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[35] Marwa Najmaldeen, “Yemenis voice appreciation for patrolmen,” Yemen Times, February 23, 2012. Available: http://www.yementimes.com/en/1549/report/465
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[37] Ghamdan Abu Ali, “Institutional Revolution removes directors of traffic, electricity, Coast Guard and Navy in Hudaydah, meeting the demands to correct the situation and remove the corrupt officials,” Akhbar al Yom, January 7, 2012 [Arabic]. Available: http://www.akhbaralyom.net/news_details.php?sid=48822
[38] Faisal Darem, “Coast guard official: Yemen well positioned to fight piracy,” al-Shorfa, January 24, 2012. Available: http://al-shorfa.com/cocoon/meii/xhtml/en_GB/features/meii/features/main/2012/01/24/feature-01
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[40] “Messages of congratulations and calls continue to the president from the sons of the nations at home and abroad,” PresidentSaleh.ye, July 28, 2009 [Arabic]. Available: http://www.presidentsaleh.gov.ye/shownews.php?lng=ar&_nsid=7479&_newsctgry=1&_newsyr=2009
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