“They are like Siamese twins, one body with two heads,” said Hassan Zaid, a top opposition leader. “Now, each head is trying to cut off the other’s head and take control of the whole body.”
Over the past two months, the momentous events in Yemen have echoed those around North Africa and the Middle East: a populist rebellion, fueled by decades of injustice, rising up to demand its leader’s ouster.
But the twist that has emerged in the past two weeks has injected a narrative of Shakespearean proportions, one tightly focused on the two rivals, shrewd men from humble beginnings who grew wealthy and powerful amid allegations of corruption and ruthlessness, and who have now turned on each other.
When snipers loyal to Saleh killed 52 protesters on March 18, Mohsen declared his allegiance to the uprising, triggering a wave of high-level defections from the military, influential tribes and the government. Mohsen, who controls much of the military, was once widely viewed as Yemen’s next leader until Saleh sought to anoint his son Ahmed as his successor. Now, Mohsen has become instrumental in pushing for Saleh’s departure, even as his former partner remains determined to dictate the terms of his exit.
“Ali Mohsen is positioning himself to be involved in a post-Saleh Yemen. He wants to be the kingmaker, the power behind the throne,” said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “For Saleh, his legacy is at stake. How history remembers Saleh depends on how he leaves.”
The questions on many minds here is whether the tensions between Yemen’s two most powerful leaders will lead to a peaceful transition of power or to civil war. They arrive amid troubling signs of government collapse, as soldiers and government officials have abandoned or fled their posts in some provinces.
In the new edition of Inspire, an English-language magazine published online by al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi predicts that the populist upheavals in the Arab world will give birth to weaker governments that will allow al-Qaeda and its affiliates to operate with more freedom. Aulaqi, who is believed to be hiding in southern Yemen, has been implicated in several attempted terrorist attacks targeting the United States.
In the capital, talks between Saleh and opponents led by Mohsen broke down again on Wednesday, after the political opposition rejected a fresh offer by Saleh to transfer power to a caretaker government but remain in office until elections are held. They want Saleh, who has also promised that his son will not succeed him, to step down immediately. “We are telling him, ‘Leave, because you are the problem,’ ” Mohammed Qahtan, a senior opposition leader, said Wednesday.