Yemen: a kidnapped revolution

Bypassing the civil society that started the revolution leads to two options for Yemen's future, and neither bodes well for stability.
Olga Aymerich
19 July 2011

On January 27, 2011 protests initiated by civil society demanding the overthrow of President Saleh broke out in Yemen. The protests grew over the following months as demonstrators began to organize. Over 100 youth and civil society movements from Sana’a, Aden, Taiz, Hadramot, and elsewhere joined the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC), and on April 12 issued a declaration calling for the departure of Saleh and the establishment of a “civil modern Yemeni state”.[1] The peaceful removal of the Saleh regime and the dissolution of the constitution, parliament, Shura Council, and Local Councils were among the demands.[2]  They also sought the formation of a Transitional Presidential Cabinet made up of qualified technocrats, the full separation of the judicial authority, the creation of independent higher authorities on human rights, freedom of the media, and dissolution of the National Security Forces.

However, it was not until top army commanders defected, members of Saleh´s ruling General People´s Congress (GPC) resigned, and prominent tribal leaders expressed their support to the protesters that Yemen´s uprising started to pose a real threat to Saleh’s 33-year old regime. Yemen’s social elites, comprised of tribal leaders and military commanders, together with less powerful businessmen and technocrats, have been the traditional allies of the president and an entrenched part of the patronage system in which political support was exchanged for elite access to state resources. Through their appointment to state institutions and the GPC or through direct financial benefit, these elites were integrated into Saleh’s network and hence, neutralized as political threats[3]. This elite bargain was put in place by Saleh when he acquired power in 1978 in order to maintain influence.  So, why did these elites position themselves against Saleh?

Creating a consensus

Saleh´s old political order, which requires the continuous expenditure of resources, operated in Yemen until the last decade, when a drop in oil revenues prevented Saleh from continuing to use this strategy of inclusiveness. The hydrocarbons sector, which accounts for nearly 75 per cent of Yemen’s state revenues, has seen its production continuously decline since 2002, from an average of 440,000 bbl/d produced in 2001 to 260,000 bbl/d in 2010. Moreover, domestic consumption has continually grown, contributing to a fall in export oil revenues at the state level[4].  Thus Saleh could not sustain such a large network of alliances, so narrowed it to his closest relatives who occupied top positions in the state security forces. The move from an inclusive to an exclusive patronage system created resentment among the traditional social elites, since it curtailed their access to state resources. This was a crucial precursor to the political chaos that broke out earlier this year.

Furthermore, after Saleh declared his support for the US-led ‘War on Terror’ in 2001 Yemen started to receive US military aid, fuelling the elites’ discontent. The largest part of US assistance was allocated to the counter-terrorism units belonging to the state security services. In 2010 alone $167.7 million was earmarked to Yemen through the US Defense Department’s 1206 Train and Equip program and through Foreign Military Financing funds.[5] Therefore, at the same time as the traditional social elites´ access to power and revenues was curbed, the security forces ruled by Saleh’s relatives were strengthened.

The consensus unravels

Once Yemen’s civil society raised its voice in January 2011 and protests gathered momentum in February, Yemeni social elites decided to support the demonstrators. This was arguably the tipping point in the revolution as a broad-based anti-Saleh coalition was now in place. However, far from the demands contained in the Declaration of Youth Revolution – particularly, to work towards the establishment of a civil modern state with Saleh gone – the social elites’ intention was to regain their lost access to state resources through the replacement of Saleh with someone who would restore the previous network of clientelism.

Interestingly, when members of the social elites first appeared they presented themselves as protectors of the demonstrators. That was the case with top army commander Major General Ali Mohsen Saleh, who declared his support for the anti-government protesters in March.[6] However, as the elites appropriated the revolution and tried to drive forward their agenda, differences between civil society groups and the social elites became more obvious, both in terms of goals and action. For example, while the CCYRC continues to call for a peaceful revolution, tribal leaders and defected army commanders have not hesitated in using force to confront Saleh. Youth protesters have declared that they will not blindly support opposition leaders such as Hamid al-Ahmar, leader of the Islah party and brother of the Hashid tribal confederation’s leader Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar. And yet, that did not stop the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) from negotiating with the opposition parties without taking into account the very civil society movements who started the revolution.[7]

An uncertain future

Now that civil society has been pushed aside, what will happen within the political process? Although social elites currently have a common objective that binds them together – the ousting of president Saleh amongst others – disagreement between them over the identity of a new president may drive Yemen into a prolonged period of instability or tribal armed confrontation. This outcome may be more likely if certain elites try to improve the position they had in Saleh’s network of clientelism. Conversely, consensus on a common candidate between the most relevant elites – such as the military establishment and the Hashid and Bakil tribal confederations – would bring stability to Yemen but would also represent the immediate return to an inclusive patronage system. The necessary resources to keep this system in place are limited, with oil revenues following a diminishing trend. Not only would this stability be short lived, but Yemen could also find itself in a more impoverished situation as its resources are completely devoured by patronage, if no diversification of the economy comes about in the interim.

In the current escalation of violence in Yemen, civil society is no longer an important player. It started the revolution with the goal of overthrowing Saleh and building a modern civil state, but its power has slowly eroded. Saleh may be ousted, but the social elites that kidnapped the revolution are not fighting for structural change. Instead, as we have seen, they seek a return to the status quo which guarantees their access to state resources for private gain. Either outcome, whether contestation or consensus among the social elites, may not bode well for Yemen´s future.


[1] The Declaration of Youth Revolution Demands. The coordination council of the Youth revolution of Change. (CCYRC)

[2] The Declaration of Youth Revolution Demands. Declaration Articles. The coordination council of the Youth revolution of Change. (CCYRC)

[3] Root, Hilton, and Emil Bolongaita. Enhancing Government effectiveness in Yemen: A country analysis. USAID, 2008.

[4] EIA. Country Analysis Brief: Yemen. US Energy Information Administration, 2011.

[5] Sharp, Jeremy M. Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations. Congressional Research Services, 2011.

[6] Top army commanders defect in Yemen. AlJazeera English 03/21/2011.

[7] Kamaldien, Y. Living with an Endless Revolution. IPS News


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