Still a Long Hard Road to Arab Democracy
The international community is paralysed by the fear that Yemen will fall into chaos after four months of demonstrations. Yemen’s opposition shares that fear. The French foreign minister Alain Juppé said in March that it was not possible to avoid the question of President Ali Abdallah Saleh leaving office, but such statements do not change the situation any more than did the regional intervention of the Gulf Cooperation Council. What Yemen’s allies want is the system preserved, even if it costs the president his job.
Even after the attack on the US warship USS Cole in Aden in 2000, the Yemeni regime tolerated the displeasure of its allies, not least the US. Saleh’s political and institutional system caused the violence: he has repressed his own citizens, especially during the civil war in Sa’ada in the northeast, a conflict that has cost more than 10,000 lives since 2004 (1), and he has used the war against al-Qaida to his own ends without managing to halt its attacks.
The serious crisis in Saleh’s regime dates back much further than 2011. Yemen was created in 1990 through the unification of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). In the past decade, this unity has been challenged by Houthi rebels (2) around Sa’ada and by the Southern Separatist Movement. Since 2007 armed Islamists have been directly targeting the authorities and security forces.
The legislative elections originally scheduled for April 2009 were postponed because of political and institutional problems. The opposition – under the umbrella of the Common Forum (al-liqa al-mushtarak) whose prominent members include the socialists (who ran former South Yemen) and the Muslim Brothers of al-Islah – have been criticising the regime for years and decided on a boycott.
Despite these political impasses, the regime continued to enjoy the support of the international community until the end of 2010. Confident of its future, it was preparing to get parliamentary approval for a law allowing Saleh to be re-elected as head of state indefinitely, with his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, a career soldier, to succeed him.
The Arab spring that began in Tunisia and Egypt galvanised Yemen’s protest movements and precipitated the break-up of the machinery of state control. Yemen’s youth, mostly unconnected to political parties, first revolted in the major cities: Sana’a, Ta’iz and Aden. Only in the second phase did opposition parties join and attempt to channel the shabab al-thawra (youth of the revolution). In March and April the protesters’ demands and methods converged – whether they were Houthis or southern separatists, members of opposition parties or civil society, tribesmen, Islamists or liberals. They were united in demanding the end to the regime and their favoured location for doing so was a crossroads outside Sana’a university, “the square of change” (3).
After 52 demonstrators were killed in Sana’a on 18 March, the regime was weakened by defections from the governing party (the General People’s Congress) but also, and more significantly, from within the government, state media and army. General Ali Muhsin, who is close to the president but also respected by Yemeni youth and known for his links with the radical Islamists, joined the protesters and promised them protection. He deployed his troops around the sit-in zone (i’tisam) in Sana’a. This alliance revealed the cracks within the regime and showed the uprising was at risk not only of a crackdown but also of turning into military conflict. Muhsin’s support crystallised tensions among the demonstrators: it served as a reminder that the revolt could provide a springboard for Saleh’s historical rivals and underlined the fragility of his peaceful option, which had held up until then.
Saleh has lived up to his reputation as a wily tactician. He has blown hot and cold, first appearing to accept an agreement brokered through the mediation of the Gulf monarchies and then refusing to sign it. He has also demonstrated his power to organise mass mobilisations that reveal the great imbalance between the sides. And by playing for time, he has created doubt and weariness among the demonstrators, foreign journalists and observers.
He has also tried to exploit obvious differences between the youths on the streets and the opposition parties. Immunity for Saleh and his circle was guaranteed under a draft agreement and accepted by the Common Forum, but rejected by the shabab, who had been kept out of the negotiations. They were mistrustful of the coalition’s strategies, especially those of Hamid al-Ahmar (the heir of a powerful tribal clan) and his al-Islah party, which has become a dominant presence among the opposition forces (4).
The slogan “Irhal” (Get out!) chanted by the demonstrators is hardly a programme and is unlikely to solve all Yemen’s crises, especially those that concern identity, which has been an issue for the secessionist movement in former South Yemen since 2007. Neither will it overcome the social inequalities, nor provide an immediate answer to economic problems or dwindling natural resources.
The security issue will also have to be faced. International anxieties have been provoked by armed groups, particularly al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), taking advantage of a political vacuum and of gains made through coordinated anti-terrorist action being threatened in the wake of the collapse of the Saleh clan.
Since the end of 2009, many US bombings targeting AQAP have undermined the Yemeni regime’s legitimacy, while only marginally affecting AQAP’s operational effectiveness. Within AQAP, figures have emerged capable of assuming the international leadership of al-Qaida, left vacant by the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Among them is Anwar al-Awlaki, an American of Yemeni origin. Less than a week after the death of Bin Laden in Pakistan, he was the target of a failed raid by a drone in the Shabwa region.
The balance of fear
The break-up of Yemen would be a risk given the proliferation of sources of legitimacy (party, tribal, religious, generational) and opposition in the past few years. Beneath the surface unity on the street, the movement opposing Salah is fragmented. Competition between the regime and the opposition, but also within the opposition or within the army, could come at a high price. Despite the defection of military men and tribal chiefs, the president still has control of much of the army and security forces directed by his allies. In April intermittent clashes pitted the first armoured division commanded by Ali Muhsin against loyalist forces. An all-out confrontation would be extremely violent.
Yemenis are aware of the risk of the conflict escalating. However, a balance of fear has been established, limiting the level of violence and repression since the start of the conflict, but also delaying change indefinitely. For four months, large pro-Saleh demonstrations have been organised in Sana’a each Friday, giving the president the chance to declare his constitutional legitimacy. These are highly dependent on the regime’s network of croneyism, and they are poor when compared with the huge spontaneous opposition demonstrations every day all over the country. In cities and villages, in squares now named “change” or “liberty”, the players in this revolution, the shabab most of all, have transformed the rules of the political game. Their protests have been structured around places, players and practices which, although inspired by old habits, are still very new.
Tawakkul Karman, a human rights activist close to the Islamists (and a woman), has become a symbol of the nascent revolution. The emergence of a new generation, brought to political consciousness by January’s events, was accompanied by a profound change in politics and the logic of collective action, and by a transformation in society. However risky it is to interpret the revolutionary process in the short term, Yemen’s unprecedented protests suggest its revolution has strong political potential and may be able to overcome some of the divisions in Yemeni society.
The early protests, morning or evening marches and demonstrations, gave way to continuous sit-ins. On 20 February a few dozen people decided to pitch tents outside Sana’a university. Their example was followed, and squares, streets and whole neighbourhoods across the country were occupied as the number of “campers” rose. These spaces were adapted and revitalised with hawkers and organisation committees.
These protests have taken many different forms: slogans, photo displays, revolutionary songs, theatre, poetry, exhibitions and artists’ workshops, festive and family gatherings, newspapers, websites and community groups, debates and civil disobedience training. Unexpectedly, thousands of tribesmen laid down their arms in favour of peaceful protest and joined the sit-ins. This new form of resistance has shaken received ideas about tribal behaviour (conservatism, backwardness and violence). A new facet of Yemen’s youth has emerged, politicised without being partisan, plural and autonomous. The national flag and anthem have replaced the sectarian and regional symbols of previous protest movements. Many participants and observers wonder whether they should fear Yemeni unity unravelling or whether it is being strengthened (5). The growing mobilisations and collaboration of different movements have made credible the idea of convergence. Exchanges and encounters between different regional groups has drawn attention to a regional readjustment of protest and underlined the key role of the southern city of Ta’iz.
Nothing can hide the strength of the hopes of the popular uprising or the transformations it has already brought about. This represents a success which the Yemenis will have to nurture.