Yemen's perilous change

While the fate of Yemen's president remains unclear, so does the country’s future. The fundamental question is whether the unrest can succeed in addressing the aspirations of Yemen’s youth, or further empower its entrenched tribal leaders.
Fatima Abo al-Asrar
13 April 2011

In Yemen, the living struck a deal with the dead. The specter of 52 lives taken on Friday, March 18 at Change Square in Sana’a continues to haunt the president. Regardless of whether Ali Abdullah Saleh orchestrated the bloody crackdown against peaceful protesters himself, a pro-government body demonstrated a shocking lack of restraint, undermining all efforts for dialogue. Since then, hundreds have been reported killed and many more injured in successive waves of massive anti-government protests.

March 18 has truly been the tipping point for Yemen, with top government officials defecting en masse in protest against the violence. Even ‘allies’ in the U.S. and among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have been distancing themselves from Saleh. Lessons from Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate that with such a groundswell of protest against the atrocities, there is virtually no stopping the popular will.

Yemen’s military elites have also picked up on this crucial lesson from Arab neighbors, while noting the praise and support bestowed on the Egyptian military by both revolutionaries and U.S. leaders for their protection of protesters. So when General Ali Mohsen—commander of the First Armored Division of the military—appeared on TV on March 21 announcing his defection, it sent shivers down the revolutionaries’ spines, injecting the opposition movement with a renewed impetus. The general’s vow to protect the protesters changed the rules of the game.

A few days later, the buzz was gone. People feared the resurgence of an ever more powerful status quo political system, one that can obliterate all aspirations for genuine change. Despite Mohsen’s crucial role in supporting the protesters, Yemenis became skeptical of his true intentions. What the general hopes to gain from joining the opposition and his potential role in Yemen’s future politics remains unclear.

Changing positions with the political winds is not the exception to the rule in Yemeni politics, but perhaps the rule itself. Tribes in Yemen have a notorious reputation for such cynical survival skills. Nevertheless, the military element in the currently chaotic picture is alarming in light of Arab revolutionary history, checkered as it is with military men seizing power and thwarting people’s desire for real change.

Facebook is not enough

In Yemen’s Change Square (Sahat al-Tagheire—or ‘revolutionary camping zone’), youth dominate the scene and drive the protesters' agenda. The atmosphere of the protests is quite festive, with songs, poetry, Qat chews—all the necessary components to keep spirits high.

The ‘youth’ movement is not confined to any particular age group or party affiliation, but its backbone consists of young people without tribal affiliations who take little or no interest in existing political parties and vehemently oppose the involvement of tribes or islamists in the next government. The message of the youth is the message of the opposition movement—a message of nonviolence, democracy, and unity.

Sadly, these youngsters are limited in number, relatively unorganized and dwarfed by the size and clout of tribes and opposition parties, which also have their share of young faces. After all, a full 50 percent of Yemen’s population is below the age of 24.

Although the lack of organization within the youth movement can be viewed as a disadvantage, it is also invigorating—providing the necessary breathing room to express opinions beyond ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ attitudes. There is no fear of breaking rules or misrepresenting party lines. Yet, an important question about the youth movement remains unanswered: If its members were to come to power, exactly how would they translate their revolutionary spirit for change?

Like many Arab youngsters, those in Yemen tend to grow up believing that their role in the country’s political life is limited to voicing their demands to political parties or the government. They lack experience in building political coalitions, projecting common goals, or conceptualizing political platforms. Even more worrying is their evident lack of capacity to organize, opening up the possibility of their members being recruited and co-opted by various established political forces.

Lessons from Egypt are still fresh: On March 19th, the Muslim Brotherhood edged closer to political dominance by amassing 77 percent of referendum votes, while the Egyptian youth movement and other secularists instrumental in bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets for demonstrations gained relatively little popular support. If Yemeni youth fail to organize before the president is gone, their cry for change may be in vain.



(c) Mohammed al-Suleihi

Yemen's dubious democracy

What good did democracy do for Yemen? The country enjoys a multi-party system with an independent civil society, parliament, and relatively advanced media laws. In fact, international observers provided Yemen’s current president with an important seal of approval by labeling his elections as free and fair. This ‘democratic phenomenon’ appeared to be a puzzling anomaly to outsiders. The leadership’s promising early pronouncements soon lost their luster in practice, or lack thereof. Popular disdain for the state of the country’s political system has been steadily growing ever since. What, exactly, went wrong?

One explanation undoubtedly involves the inherent difficulty in a country as poor as Yemen to encourage people to vote and take an active interest in the development of a well-functioning political system. Economic performance and the ability of government to deliver social services are fundamental to democratic progress. Yemen has consistently ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index for the past ten years—an exceedingly difficult foundation on which to nurture a healthy democracy.

Democracy in Yemen has also served to legitimize a complex informal political system: The tribes. Tribal associations fortified their positions through the ballot box. The highly personalized nature of the country’s leadership undermined public trust in the sincerity of the government’s interest in popular political participation.

Even the opposition sought to use the ‘democratic’ political system to advance the tribal and group interests of a narrow elite as opposed to the wider interests of the population or even their own constituencies. Take the late Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussain al-Ahmar as an example. He served as the Speaker of the Yemeni Parliament, head of the opposition Islamist Islah party, and head of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation. After he passed away, his son Sadeq al-Ahmar succeeded him.

This cycle of patronage cannot be broken. It is quite naive to expect that democracy in Yemen is now poised to empower independent, educated youth based on merit.  This applies to the present-day revolutionary movement as well. One of the main drivers for change in Yemen is currently none other than Sheikh Hameed al-Ahmar, a businessman and influential member of the opposition Islah party, brother of the current Sheikh of Hashid, son of the previous Sheikh of Hashid.

Sheikh Hameed al-Ahmar is part of Yemen’s malady, a cornerstone of an elitist tribal system that has grown stronger over the past three decades. Hameed understands this well, which is why he announced that he has no interest in the presidency. Yet, his generous support to the ‘youth’ and Islah party is not entirely altruistic. Hameed’s struggle with President Saleh carries with it the distinct flavor of political vendetta, with the youth and Islah party merely pawns for the advancement of his personal goals in a perilous political game.

It is worth noting that the opposition silently expresses their intention of purging Hameed from the movement—once the immediate political goal of toppling Saleh has been achieved. But this is simply a gambit they are not in a position to make.

A revolution for all?

In this context, many Yemenis are not feeling warm and fuzzy with the public defections of political personnel from the government and their stated desire to ‘join the revolution.’ There is real fear that tribal and islamist interference in politics could overshadow the dreams of the revolutionaries. Have the politicians and diplomats defected because they are supporting change, or simply to save themselves from going down with President Saleh?

While the first opposition members to come out onto Yemeni streets were primarily young protesters, other forces quickly jumped on the bandwagon. There has been strength in numbers thus far, but the current number and diversity of players, which includes youth, socialists, military, clerics, islamists and tribes, would appear to be practically unmanageable as a unified force in the long run.

Some voices in the opposition would like to draw a line separating the good (revolutionaries), from the bad (elites); a step that would impair the prospects for post-revolutionary nation building. The fear is that the country might fall back into the trap of exploiting the same inflammatory rhetoric that led to the strong cleavages between the north and south following the 1994 civil war, where southerners were often labeled as separatists or ‘infisalli,’ while the ‘exploitative’ northerners were often referred to with the derogatory name ‘dehbashi’ (the surname of a fictional Yemeni television character—a frustrated, clumsy citizen of Sana’a).

There is no textbook ‘step-by-step guide’ for a successful revolutionary transition of course. But if Yemenis favor ethnic, tribal or narrow political agendas over the broader objective of building a national consensus on key policy challenges facing the country, this historic opportunity for developing a healthy democracy in Yemen could easily be lost.

Can we wait until January for Saleh to leave?

Yes and No. The longer President Saleh holds on to power, the harder it will be for the revolutionaries to maintain the momentum and morale necessary to force real political change. Those elites who have distanced themselves from the president will also become more and more vulnerable, perhaps even finding themselves targets of assassination attempts if they possess information potentially harmful to the ruling establishment. Fears over such retaliation could prove fundamental in making things ‘unworkable’ for the president and his supporters.

However, the risks are grave for both sides. Chaos can erupt from either direction. The majority of people were under the assumption that Saleh would surrender in a quick exit similar to that of Mubarak or bin Ali. “This is not a movie that ends with the president leaving,” a friend noted. A poorly negotiated departure by Saleh could unlock a Pandora’s box of competing interests. Yemen’s elaborate and well-armed tribal structure has much to lose if the president is suddenly overthrown.

The focus needs to shift from an immediate departure to a peaceful departure. Yemenis do not deserve further battles over leadership and power. Three critical factors would help guarantee a peaceful transition in Yemen: Firstly, the president would need to step down while attempting to reconcile the interests of various competing groups. Secondly, the revolutionaries must be able to unite their vastly different political agendas into a popular political platform. Finally, tribal and military leaders must be willing to value and support the aspirations of the popular revolution.

The rest of the world can assist in this process by helping the revolutionaries—Yemen’s new generation—to develop strategies for building and maintaining effective and popular government institutions, while helping to support national human and economic development programs. And, first and foremost, creating the space for Yemenis to take charge of their own destiny.


Pamela Kilpadi, a doctoral researcher with the University of Bristol School for Policy Studies, contributed to this article.

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