The truce announced on May 27 by the opposition leader Sadiq al-Ahmar highlights the strength of the forces ranged against supporters of democracy in Yemen. The immediate cause of the five days of fighting, in which over 100 died in the capital, Sanaa, was President Ali Abdullah Saleh's third refusal to sign a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The deal required Mr. Saleh to step down in return for immunity from prosecution by a unity government. The Yemeni President has a reputation for breaking agreements, and is yet to show any indication of acting even on his earlier promise of a “constitutional” transfer of power at the end of this year. There are several complicating factors in the political situation. The current truce may appear to be based on popular feeling, but it is actually the result of a decision taken by Mr. al-Ahmar, who heads the country's most powerful tribal grouping, the Hashed confederation. Another bloc has been formed by General Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation of the opposition leader), who claims to support the public protests but has long been a member of the political elite and defected from the government only in March 2011. Further, Sadiq al-Ahmar's brother Hameed runs the mobile phone network that the protesters use, and helps fund the opposition coalition.
Ordinary Yemenis, who number 24 million in one of the world's poorest countries, are therefore at serious risk of exclusion from the very movement they had the courage to initiate in January. The issues they face are not solely of domestic origin. Other Gulf countries, which have shown no inclination to share their oil wealth with their southern neighbour, are very nervous about the presence in Yemen of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and about its potential expansion during any instability that might follow a change of state. That anxiety is shared by the United States and the United Kingdom even though the AQAP is not, as of now, a major force in Yemen, the land of origin of the bin Ladens. The G8 has been persuaded to provide $40 billion in support of those West Asian and North African states that have undertaken reforms in response to the continuing pro-democracy protests, but there too nothing is as it seems. Most of the money had been allocated earlier, mainly to Tunisia and Egypt. In effect, what domestic Yemeni factions, the GCC, and the G8 are revealing is a desire for a handover of power between existing groups. If that takes place, it will expose the hollowness of western talk of support for democracy in West Asia. It will also amount to a betrayal of the people of Yemen.