Democracy Lab

In Yemen, A Revolution in Reverse

A fuel crisis prompts worries that the old regime is exploiting instability to bring itself back to power.

SANAA, Yemen — On June 10, tribesmen in Yemen's Marib province attacked a power plant that supplies Sanaa, the capital with the bulk of its electricity, plunging the city into darkness. A day later, as diesel power generators ran out of fuel, festering frustration with the deteriorating security and feeble economy boiled over. Groups of young men started blocking off first small side streets and then major roads in Sanaa with barricades of burning tires. Plumes of smoke rose above the city as those cars that had fuel found themselves snarled up in seemingly never-ending traffic jams. Soldiers appeared on the streets clad in riot gear, firing live ammunition over the heads of protestors at Tahrir Square in central Sanaa.

For many in Yemen, the past few months have been an increasingly unwelcome reminder of the darkest days of 2011. Then, as infighting between former allies in the regime of President Saleh threatened to tear the country apart, the economy ground to a halt. Supply of electricity, fuel, and water dwindled, and prices shot up -- at least, where basic goods were available. Neighbors fought one another over liters of water. The poverty rate rose above 50 percent, where it has been stubbornly stuck ever since. Three years on, lines over half a mile long stretch out from gas stations in the capital, Sanaa. Electricity supply is erratic at best. In some parts of the city, lights flicker on for a few minutes at a time before cutting out again. The cost of black market fuel has doubled, as has the price of non-government supply water.

The security situation is also unsteady. The military has been fighting two inconclusive campaigns, against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local franchise of the radical Islamist group, in the south, and the Houthis, a militant Zaydi Shiite revivalist movement, in the northern province of Amran that borders Sanaa. Assassinations, terrorist attacks, and kidnappings are a day-to-day occurrence across the country.

In 2011 protestors called for a new president and system; on June 11, they called for the restoration of Yemen's old order. Some demanded that Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen's president since February 2012 who has been overseeing a troubled transition to federal democracy, step down. Others took aim at the country's interim prime minister, Mohammed Salem Basindwah, who has come to symbolize the weak management of Yemen's economy. "Salam Allah al-Afash," came another chant: "May Allah's Peace be on al-Afash." The chant was a reference to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's proper surname, which was a state secret for much of his time in power, but is now used to signal his humble origins and his status as a man of the people as he undergoes a remarkable reinvention from despised autocrat to fondly remembered former leader.

This new unrest is creating an opening for Yemen's many opposing factions to pick up where they left off three years ago, and will potentially bring the country's experiment in political transition to a sudden halt. It is, says one observer, "2011 in reverse."

But not everyone buys this story. People in Hadi's camp see the current crisis as a carefully orchestrated attempt to bring down the president -- who formally succeeded Saleh in a one-man election in February 2012 -- and derail Yemen's internationally-backed political transition. According to several people with knowledge of the president's thinking say, Hadi is convinced that groups linked to Saleh are behind the attacks on a vital oil export pipeline and a power station in Marib, a view that is backed by officials at the state oil company that operates the pipeline. "These attacks are coming from groups who are being paid by people with interests in seeing big problems in Yemen," an executive at the oil firm says.

The attacks have cut off a vital revenue stream from oil exports. Additional attacks on the country's main refinery in Aden have forced the government to import fuel from international markets and sell it at a loss at heavily subsidized prices, incurring considerable losses. These tribesmen, backed by shadowy interest groups in Sanaa, are the ones causing the fuel crisis and wider economic woes, officials at the finance and oil ministries say.

People close to the president are clear on who is to blame for the burgeoning crisis. "There is no doubt," a senior presidential advisor, who asks to remain anonymous, told me, "that what happened [on June 11] was in preparation for a coup. It was organized by a certain group within Saleh's circle."

According to the advisor, whose claims are supported by several other government officials, this group bussed people into Sanaa the night before the protests and distributed the tires used to set up the roadblocks at strategic points across the city. (In the photo above, Yemenis construct roadblocks at the start of the June 11 protests.) They also printed thousands of posters featuring Saleh's face in preparation for what they hoped would become a huge protest movement, the advisor said.

Hadi's response to the protests was to reshuffle the cabinet to bring in new ministers of finance, oil, electricity, and foreign affairs, including several people he believes are loyal to him. He promised to bring fuel and power back to the capital, and sent members of his presidential security detail to shut down Yemen Today, a television channel run by Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party. The channel had been used to direct the protests, the advisor claims. "They were announcing that on Zubairi street there are no demonstrations and so on," he says. "They were sending a message telling people where to go."

Two days later, Hadi sent loyalist troops to seize control of Ali Abdullah Saleh Mosque, the former president's $60 million monument to himself that towers over the Sanaa skyline. According to the advisor, the mosque and its grounds were used to plan and stage the June 11 protests, and were being used to store broadcast equipment that might have been used to return Yemen Today to the air. "They wanted to take the equipment out, but the army prevented them," he says.

The protests have abated, for now at least. Yet the fact that Hadi can do little to stop the attacks, or to bring Saleh properly to heel, speaks volumes about the precariousness of his position. The government continues to pay tribesmen in Marib tens of millions of dollars to stop the attacks and allow engineers to repair the damaged infrastructure without fear of harm. Many tribesmen call the oil and electricity ministries hours before the attacks to let them know they are coming, sources at the electricity, oil, and interior ministries say, but the military does nothing. Rather than arresting the people behind the June 11 unrest, Hadi is said to be in negotiations to allow Yemen Today to return to the air after moderating its content.

While the economic crisis may well be man-made, it is still very real and continues to threaten Yemen's stability. The fact remains that two and a half years after Saleh agreed to step down, Yemenis have seen little improvement in their day-to-day lives, leaving many yearning for the return of life before the Arab Spring and a strongman in Saleh's mold.

Saleh's people may have started the unrest on June 11 but many of those who took the streets had nothing to do with him or his party, and this is something that should trouble Hadi. "Under Saleh, things were bad, but now they are so much worse," said Ahmed, a 23-year-old from Taiz who took part in a protest near Yemen's Tahrir Square. "I took part in the protests in 2011 and I don't want him to come back, but we need someone like him: Someone strong."

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Ukraine Wins a Battle in the East

How Ukrainian forces took back a town controlled by pro-Russian separatists -- and scored a major victory for their country's morale.

In April, pro-Russian gunmen seized power in the industrial city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine. The separatists succeeded in driving out a local Ukrainian national guard unit and shot the local police chief.

I was there, late last week, to watch a Ukrainian military unit take the city back. The Azov Battalion is a volunteer unit of mainly Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the country's East, where separatist forces supported by Moscow have been trying to wrench territory away from the control of Kiev. Around 200 men from the battalion were joined by soldiers from the Ukrainian army, national guard, and other volunteer units, all adding up to a force of around 400 men coordinated by an army general who heads the government's "anti-terrorist operation" in the Donetsk region.

I joined the battalion two weeks ago, after I discovered that they were preparing to lead the operation to regain control over Mariupol. Until this past Friday, attempts by Kiev's forces to neutralize separatist occupations had failed because of a combination of government ineptness and the fact that many of the pro-Russian forces were better armed and trained than the Ukrainian military.

So that's how I ended up, late last week, in Mariupol Airport, located a few miles outside the city. The airport, which was to serve as our jumping-off point for the final attack, is closed to planes but still in the hands of the Ukrainian military. Our transports, bulky green military trucks of Soviet vintage, parked on the runway as night began to fall. We were issued Ukrainian army rations of appalling tinned meat or fish and tasteless biscuits and then settled down for a few hours of sleep on the cold, hard floors of the airport concourse.

"There's no more fear," Bajda told me. "All of us have thought about it but we're all calm now. We know what might happen. We accept it, and we're ready." Bajda, 23, comes from the eastern city of Kharkiv; he was born in 1991, the year Ukraine became independent from the USSR. He described his parents to me as "average products of the Soviet system," but he grew up feeling an intense sense of allegiance to his country. "There wasn't one great event that sparked it. It just came naturally to me. Now fate has given us a chance to become heroes for Ukraine."

During the EuroMaidan protests in Kiev against then-President Viktor Yanukovych Baijda joined solidarity demonstrations in Kharkiv, some of them numbering as much as 50,000. When Russia annexed Crimea and started stirring up separatist feeling in other parts of the East, he and his friends decided to form their own volunteer battalions. They bought weapons and uniforms with money from donors, and trained in fields, forests, and even building sites.

Since then, though, the men of the battalion had received at least a modicum of proper training from the state. I had watched older battalion members with previous military experience run the younger ones through their paces on a firing range. All the men of the unit learned basic battle tactics, concealment, close combat, and the use of night-vision goggles. Even so, I still had doubts that the battalion was ready for its first battle.

The battalion's officers woke us at 2:30 in the morning, and we assembled near the green military trucks that had brought us to the airport. There was no breakfast or even a hot drink. No one can accuse the Ukrainian military of indulging in needless luxury.

Overnight we were joined by other units, everyone in different uniforms. We wound lengths of sticky orange tape around our arms to identify ourselves as members of the Ukrainian forces. Standing there in the early-morning gloom, we listened to an address from Oleh Lyashko, a right-wing politician who vowed to join the unit in its fight. The Azov Battalion draws many of its volunteers from protesters close to nationalist parties and political organizations. Lyashko, who campaigned to respectable effect in last month's presidential election, is one of the battalion's strongest supporters.

Then we clambered abroad the transports and in the pre-dawn light rumbled off on the five-mile journey to the outskirts of Mariupol. The way was led by what battalion members referred to as their "secret weapon" -- a former garbage truck covered with makeshift armor in the form of hundreds of steel rods welded together on the outside. Thin slits were left open in the windshield for the driver and front passenger. The roof of the truck had been removed and a double-barreled 22-mm anti-aircrat gun was fixed to the floor. It looked like something out of one of the Mad Max films.

Our little convoy of trucks sped down a deserted four-lane highway. In the back of my truck I was in there was no room to sit; we stood on wooden floors, packed tightly together. Normally the men of the battalion joked a lot, but now no one spoke. The faces around me were lost in introspection. I guessed that the fighters were absorbed in thoughts about their families and their own mortality.

The unit boasted an odd assortment of men. Most of the volunteers were young Ukrainians like Bajda, who had battled the security forces of President Viktor Yanukovych during the EuroMaidan protests that ultimately brought down his regime. Because so many of the battalion's members were from eastern Ukraine, they wore balaclava masks to hide their faces; the worry was that harm could come to their families, many of whom live in separatist-controlled areas, if their identities become known. They used false names for the same reason.

A few of the older members had served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Some were Ukrainian nationalists who had volunteered to fight on the Georgian side in that country's brief war against Russia in 2008. Some had joined Chechen forces fighting the Russians in the 1990s; during my conversations with them I heard many bitter remarks about the Chechen mercenaries who had been sent across the border by Moscow to bolster the pro-Russian separatists.

There were even a few foreigners in the battalion: three Swedes, a lone Italian, and a dozen or two Russian citizens who claim to oppose the government of Vladimir Putin. None of these men receives pay.

As our convey neared the edge of Mariupol, we found that the separatist forces, alerted by the activity of the night before, had abandoned their barricades of concrete, tires, and barbed wire at the outskirts of the city.

Gazing nervously at the rooftops of buildings lining the road, we drove slowly into the center of the city. The vehicles halted at an intersection next to the city's main hotel. As soon as we jumped down from the back of our trucks, a rocket-propelled grenade blew up a few feet from one of our vehicles, shredding the hand of the men.

Another explosion quickly followed. Gunfire erupted on all sides and we scattered for cover. The group I was with sheltered by a wall opposite the hotel. About 100 yards around the corner from us was what turned out to be the separatists' main defense point, another barricade of barbed wire and concrete.

The firefight that followed lasted for three hours. Once again I experienced that peculiar feeling, common to anyone who's experienced battle, that each and every bullet was aimed at me personally. I stayed with one group throughout, but I know that our drama was repeated in other parts of the town where Ukrainian fighters engaged the separatists.

The battalion commander, a tall bearded man by the name of Andriy Biletsky, was with our group of around 30 men. He shouted orders: Where to take up firing positions. When to advance. Which weapons -- Kalashnikov assault rifles, belt-fed machine guns, grenade launchers -- to fire where and when. Through radio he was updated about the wider picture, coordinating the moves of the battalion's units.

Three times the Mad Max vehicle slid out from side streets, opening a withering fire on the separatist barricades. Members of the battalion darted up the street, firing at the enemy. Other members of the group I was with worked their way toward the separatist positions through the back gardens of buildings. One of them, Serhiy, a former policeman from Crimea who refused to accept Russian authority after Moscow annexed the peninsula, was winged by a bullet that made blood gush from his left temple. After the wound was bandaged, Serhiy rested for 20 minutes, then climbed over the wall again to rejoin the fight.

Slowly our group worked its way up the street towards the barricade. Two of the Azov's men sent four rocket-propelled grenades into a bank building that was also defended by the separatists. Other groups of Ukrainian fighters closed in on the barricade from other sides.

Slowly the sound of gunfire became intermittent and then died down. Everyone carefully worked their way up towards the main barricade. There were some bodies on the streets and the Ukrainian forces reported at least seven separatist fighters had been killed and a dozen captured whilst the rest had fled.

During the fighting the streets had been deserted by civilians but as the Ukrainian forces fanned out people came out to greet them and offering bottles of water. Occasional bursts of gunfire echoed and groups of soldiers investigated.

Lyashko, in black uniform and armed with two pistols, led some of the searches. In one basement they found five separatist gunmen who refused to come out until the Ukrainians threatened to throw a grenade inside. The prisoners were handed over to the police after Lyashko, a member of parliament, told them they would face 15 years in prison if found guilty of terrorism.

"Ukraine needed this victory," Lyashko said. It will have a profound effect on morale. It shows that we can beat the separatists even if Russia is supplying them." Even more importantly, he said, the operation demonstrated that local people had no sympathies with the separatists. "They've seen how this bandit Donetsk People's Republic works - that they are marauders and thieves. People here are welcoming us. Now we need to work with the local population to ensure the separatists don't return."

The joy of victory was tempered in the early hours of the following day when battalion members learned that separatists had downed a Ukrainian military transport landing at an airport in eastern Ukraine, killing all 49 servicemen aboard.

A Ukrainian military source said two Russian-made Igla missiles fired from portable launchers hit the plane. The Ukrainian government accuses the Kremlin of supplying separatists with those missiles as well as large quantities of other equipment -- including three tanks, which NATO satellite surveillance confirmed came from a Russian base in Rostov-on-Don. (One of the Ukrainian volunteers I interviewed, a veteran of the Russian air force, harshly criticized the government's decision to allow a heavily loaded plane to fly over territory controlled by rebels known to have anti-aircraft weapons. "The transports should be used for getting men and equipment closer to the front but not to a conflict zone itself," he told me. "That's madness or treachery."

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko praised the retaking of Mariupol. He temporarily made the city the adminsitrative center of its region as long as Donetsk, the capital, remains in the hands of the separatist leadership.

The deaths of the 49 servicemen aboard the plane made a grisly contrast to the light casualties -- a mere four wounded -- suffered by the forces that recaptured Mariupol. By last Sunday it was clear that despite losing much blood, the most seriously injured battalion member would live.

Nonetheless, the battalion was gripped by the grief that has enveloped the whole country following the downing of the plane. The incident has hardened attitudes against Russia throughout the country. Bohdan, a 23-year-old battalion member from the city of Luhansk, occupied by the same group of pro-Russian fighters who likely downed the plane, said: "I hope that this is the start of the liberation of all the towns taken by the separatists. I want my battalion to be the one to take back my Luhansk from the terrorists."

DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images