September 20, 2011 — The scenes from this week's violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a are visceral and disturbing: a man's face reduced to a bloody pulp; a teenager walking through a crowd, sobbing, holding the dismembered arm of a friend; rows of corpses, some with intravenous drips still beside them, the doctors too busy to remove them as more wounded are rushed into the makeshift field hospitals; among the bodies, a young girl with a bullet wound to her forehead, and a woman in an abaya standing over her. The journalists reporting and tweeting from the floors of mosques-turned-emergency rooms all use the same word: horrifying.
Numbers are still hard to come by: by most counts, 26 protesters were killed on Sunday and another 28 on Monday, with hundreds more wounded. Fighting continued on Tuesday as government forces pressed in on the protester camp with mortars and sniper fire. The violence follows a relative lull in Yemen's popular uprising, which began early this year. In the spring, the uprising had moments of extreme bloodshed -- pro-regime snipers killed 42 protesters in March; in June, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was injured in a bomb blast that sparked two weeks of fighting between tribal opposition forces and pro-regime Republican Guardsmen commanded by the president's son, Ahmed. The summer, characterized by a tense ceasefire while Saleh recovered in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, was comparatively calm. As of only a week ago, a resolution to the political crisis seemed nearer than it had in months.
On September 12, Saleh authorized his vice president to negotiate and sign an agreement to resolve the political crisis through a peaceful transfer of power. Such an accord has been discussed since April, and over the course of May, Saleh committed on three separate occasions to sign a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional political body, only to back out each time at the last moment. Because of Saleh's previous recalcitrance, protesters and experts were cautious about this latest agreement. One protester in Sana'a asked reporter Tom Finn, "Why do you guys in the West keep falling for the same old tricks?" Gregory Johnsen, a doctoral candidate at Princeton and expert on Yemeni affairs, likened Saleh to Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. Despite the doubts over Saleh's sincerity, the U.S. State Department thought the development promising enough to issue a press release. In it, spokesperson Victoria Nuland cited "encouraging signs" and expressed hope that "an agreement is reached and the signing of the GCC Initiative takes place within one week."
Protesters escalated their demonstrations this week by organizing marches beyond the area of Sana'a protected by defected military forces, where they had previously remained. It is unclear how the fighting started on Sunday, but it happened as protesters approached Kentucky Roundabout, so-called because of a counterfeit Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant located on the street. Government forces in the square and above opened fire on the march. Journalists on the ground have reported the use of tear gas, sniper rifles, and other small arms, as well as .50 caliber machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, and rocket propelled grenades. A doctor at one of the field hospitals told Al Jazeera English, "In most cases, the victims are targeted in the head, the neck or the chest," an assessment corroborated by Finn. The government forces are not shooting indiscriminately, but to kill.
Members of defected military units, which have done their best to maintain distance from the intermittent clashes with government forces, responded to the outbreak of violence by fighting back. Currently, there are no numbers of dead or wounded soldiers, but in videos taken at field hospitals, men in fatigues can be seen among the rows of the dead. It is not the first time that defected military units have engaged government forces, but it is easily their largest exchange to date. Spontaneous marches occurred elsewhere in Yemen in solidarity with the protesters in Sana'a, and at least in the city of Taiz, they too were met with violence. At least three protesters were killed there on Monday.
The only people who know who gave the order to open fire -- or if an order was even given at all -- are in the loyalist Republican Guard and Central Security Forces, and they won't talk to the media. That the violence escalated the way it did and has continued suggests that even if this crackdown started by accident, it has been accepted as policy by the military leadership. Many of the commanders of the remaining loyal military forces are relatives of Saleh, and though the Gulf Cooperation Council deal would grant them amnesty, it would come at the cost of their position and prestige. Many analysts believed Ahmed Saleh, the president's son and commander of the Republican Guard, was being groomed to be his father's successor. He has everything to lose in the peace process, and as Marc Lynch observed, the protesters will not be interested in signing an accord that includes amnesty after the events of the past two days.
Representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the United Nations, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and the ambassador from the United States met on Monday to try to finalize a transfer of power agreement. At this point, though, it seems unlikely that anyone will be listening.