It is safe to say that the situation in Yemen has turned into a war. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been injured in shelling of his palace, and several of his guards and associates were killed. The shelling apparently came at the hands of Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar’s Hashid tribal confederation, which has been openly fighting the government for about twelve days. This is a disaster for Yemen’s young liberals, who continue to pay the price of revolt with their lives, yet who are now stuck on the sidelines as the Hashid and the Presidential Guard duke it out. Yemen’s old constitution, though Saleh ignored it, could have been used to accommodate new political forces–indeed, this was part of the plan the GCC pushed. If the Hashid confederation takes over, there is no guarantee that they will not attempt to create some new system. The best hope for the liberals is to remain organized and perhaps even active as the tribes fight the government. Once the physical battles have been settled, the political battles will begin, and their organization would give them an “army” to be reckoned with, one that the post-conflict power structure will be eager to accommodate or at least co-opt.
There are varying reports on the severity of Saleh’s injuries. The official line is that he was slightly injured. Saleh gave a speech in an apparent attempt to prove his health. However, Al Jazeera reporter Hashem Ahelbarra said that Saleh “was barely able to punctuate his own ideas and speak in terms of very clear sentences,” and an anonymous military source said that Saleh had been taken to a hospital. It is noteworthy that Saleh’s speech was released as audio only–while he may be trying to preserve his strongman mystique by not appearing on TV with so much as a bandaid on his face, it is also possible that Saleh has been seriously hurt. That could provoke a crisis, for physical incapacity is a classic cause of coups. It could also lead to Saleh becoming a figurehead for another leader, likely from the Presidential Guard.
Why can we say Yemen is at war? There have been an estimated 700-800 deaths in the uprisings so far, and a very common academic definition of civil war is the death of at least 1,000 people per year. Given that the conflict is heating up, Yemen will reach that benchmark within a few weeks. What’s more, the injury of the President in a large enemy attack from within the capital city is a catastrophic failure of state authority. Any government that can truly claim to be in charge would have been able to stop the attacks and expel the Hashid fighters from the capital days ago.