Decoding Yemen

Despite 10 unprecedented days of protest, the world’s media has devoted few column inches to the upheaval sweeping Yemen. The spotlight often hovers but never settles. For a newspaper industry with limited resources, it would seem that a Yemen correspondent is a luxury that few can afford. Unfortunately, this has led to a dearth of reliable analysis as we examine the protests and their origins. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has often acknowledged the difficulty he faces in trying to keep his country under control, likening the process of governing Yemen to ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’. Whilst his ability to charm, bribe and co-opt had worked well until a few weeks ago, his jig atop the snakes’ nest grows ever more precarious. As tension mounts and the economy crumbles, it seems that Yemen’s day of reckoning cannot be far away. To better understand events as they unfold, a brief run through of Yemen’s unique politics will – I hope – be helpful.

What is happening in Yemen?

Over the past 2 weeks, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in the biggest wave of protests the country has ever seen. The demonstrators have tended to be youthful – the average age in Yemen is 17 – but the demographics involved have become increasingly diverse over the past week, suggesting a broadening of support for the movement. Although Western reporting has focused on the capital, Sana’a, mostly due to a lack of reporters in other locations, the uprising has reverberated across the country.  Yesterday, saw the largest pro-democracy demonstration to date: according to Reuters, both supporters and opponents of President Saleh held rival demonstrations in Sana’a (the latter group would seem to represent something very similar to the ‘pro-Mubarak’ supporters whose motivations I have previously described). In the city of Taiz, about 10,000 also staged anti-government protests. Although difficult to verify, the latest death toll has been placed at 17, a figure which will likely rise over the coming days. The regime’s response to the unrest has been patchy: whilst some protesters have faced the wrath of the military, others have been allowed to continue in relative peace. On Thursday evening, however, an Interior Ministry statement ordered security forces to ‘raise their security vigilance and take all measures to control any terrorist elements’ who might take advantage of the protests to infiltrate Sana’a.

Why have protests broken out?

To an extent, Yemen’s protests have been motivated by conditions similar to those elsewhere in the region. As with Egypt, its faltering economy has proved a crucial flashpoint. Yemen is the poorest country per head in the Arab world with over 45% of its population living on less than $2 a day. In addition, natural resources are rapidly dwindling and a shortage of groundwater has created the very real possibility that the Sanaa may run dry before 2017. For some analysts, Yemen’s economic problems represented an obstacle to the outbreak of protest rather than a mobilising factor. Yemenis are far more preoccupied with day-to-day survival than with the struggle for political rights playing out across the region, or so the logic goes. However, as the protests have gathered pace it has become clear that this theory is no longer sustainable. If it is a government’s job to provide for its citizens, alleviating poverty and protecting the resources that drive the economy, then it has become clear to many that President Saleh’s regime is failing them. Egypt and Tunisia have held out the promise of change and Yemen is reaching out to grasp it with both hands.

Lack of political freedom has also been an important factor here. Although the 2006 elections were praised by independent observers as a success, democratic politics remain more of an illusion than a reality. In a manner consistent with the US aim of democracy promotion, electoral politics have emerged in Yemen as a vital part of the regime’s drive to secure foreign capital. To this end, Saleh has overseen the establishment of weak democratic institutions that simultaneously sate the US desire for a more open political process and help widen regime control. This logic is perhaps most obvious when applied to the Yemeni parliament. Theoretically, it has a range of constitutional responsibilities ranging from the ability to propose and approve legislation, to approving the budget. In reality, the regime has consistently undermined their role as overseers and few have fought against this process. Elected officials from all major parties have echoed the belief that their primary purpose is to rubber stamp decisions made by the executive and provide an outward veneer of democracy to citizens and foreign donors. Regime restrictions have also been felt by Yemen’s independent media. Journalists seeking to publish damaging stories are subject to increasing state surveillance. In addition, new techniques for prosecution have emerged over the last few years and in 2009, a ‘special court’ was established for journalists who are deemed to have illegally criticised the regime. Given the increasing difficulty experienced by those wising to express their grievances through legitimate channels – parliamentary or journalistic – it is perhaps no surprise that the space for dissent has moved onto the streets.

Like Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen is also no stranger to more brutal forms of repression. Over the past decade, Saleh has dealt with conflicts on a number of different fronts, quashing them with varying degrees of brutality. These include the Huthi rebellion in the north of the country, an increasingly troublesome secessionist movement in the south, and the final ingredient, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), operating from the country’s tribal regions. Paradoxically, AQAP’s presence in Yemen has represented something of a boon for Saleh as he seeks to quash opposition. Recycling the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’ – both to appease the US and to tacitly warn Yemenis that the alternative to his repressive rule is a takeover by religious fundamentalists – the president has been able to attract high levels of military funding from abroad. This has been used to bolster the capacity of Yemen’s security services, facilitating their crackdown on groups that can be ostensibly included in Saleh’s counterterrorism drive. And it is not only the combatants in Yemen’s violent conflicts that have suffered. The fully institutionalist Islamist party, Islah, has also been subject to constant accusations of terrorist links, forcing them to adapt to the politics of fear and marginalisation that Saleh has so adeptly cultivated.

A uniquely Yemeni revolution

In Yemen, as elsewhere, economic, political and social grievances have combined to create the conditions which finally erupted 10 days ago. It is worth remembering, however, that these comparisons are only to be made in the broadest sense. Yemen’s economic woes and political demographics are very different to those elsewhere in the region. In Tunisia and Egypt for example, the well-connected middle classes had been sporadically mobilising for a decade. The networks of activity that formed during this period were eventually those that would spring into action as the uprisings gathered momentum. In contrast, 70% of Yemen’s population live in rural areas and poverty levels have created a serious barrier to the emergence of any sizeable middle class. Given the difference in demographics, however, there is one final ingredient that makes this a uniquely Yemeni uprising. This is the importance of tribes. As with Egypt and Tunisia, the protests have been notable for a lack of organised activity on the part of formal political organisations. Since democratic structures are weak and repression levels high, parties have struggled to establish a of foothold over the past decade, negating any claim they might have to being representatives of the popular revolt. As a result, tribal leaders still represent the most effective players in a country where so much of the population live in isolated, rural areas. Although Saleh has retained the tenuous support of most tribal leaders, this tacit alliance is being slowly eroded. Eyewitnesses have reported armed tribesmen loyal to Husseim al-Ahmar, one of the leaders of the Hashid confederation, protecting anti-government protesters against their regime-sponsored opponents. This is a certainly a dynamic to monitor closely over the coming days. The actions of Hussein’s brother, Hamid al-Ahmar, could yet prove particularly important.

It is hugely difficult to predict the events that will unfold over the next few weeks in Yemen. Although the uprising has not yet reached the critical mass, Saleh is undoubtedly facing the greatest threat to his 33 year rule. If events events in Egypt and Tunisia have revealed one thing it is that authoritarian rule is no longer a behemoth that must be endured, rather than challenged. Amongst Saleh’s biggest nightmares remains the prospect separate uprisings in the north and south joining forces – even loosely – to strike a final blow to the regime. Although practical cooperation between the two remains unlikely,  actors from both long-standing conflicts are becoming increasingly active in the new wave of protests. Nevertheless, the outcome of this uprising could well hinge on the smallest of events. Yesterday, it is reported that a single panicking soldier almost changed the course of events by firing into a peaceful crowd before his superiors were able to wrestle the gun from him. The evidence of Tunisia suggests that the turning point can just as easily come from the actions of an individual. After all, it took the burning of just one desperate man to ignite the spark of revolution that has spread across North Africa and the Middle East. The turning point is drawing ever closer; do watch Yemen in the coming days.

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Crossposted at

EDIT: Events are moving fast in Yemen; Hussein al-Ahmar today called openly for Yemenis to overthrow the regime. For a good sense of what’s going on, check out this piece by Laura Kasinof for New York Times. There’s also an excellent post by Gregory Johnsen over at Waq al-Waq, explaining the significance of al-Ahmar’s defection.


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