Yemen’s Reluctant Insurrection

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Shifting Sands
The LSE IDEAS Middle East Blog

Washington, DC — On February 2, Yemeni President Ali Abdulla Saleh stunned Western observers by announcing that he would not seek re-election or install his son as his successor. Presented as part of a package of concessions to Yemen’s political opposition, the move tabled a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the 68-year old leader to remain in office for life. “I will not extend my mandate and I am against hereditary rule,” Saleh declared during a parliamentary session. “The interests of the country come before our personal interests.”

Saleh’s motives were arguably more pragmatic than altruistic. Coming in the wake of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the president’s pledge was widely perceived as an attempt to placate the protesters massing in Sana’a’s central square. The announcement also recalled the 2006 Yemeni elections, where Saleh made–then and subsequently abandoned–a similar promise to retire. With more than two years remaining in the president’s current term, many Yemeni observers saw this latest pronouncement as a tactical rather than meaningful development.

The same could also be said for the Yemeni government’s recent economic initiatives. From slashing personal income taxes to raising salaries and pensions for civil servants and the military, the ruling General People’s Congress party (GPC) has moved swiftly to stem frustrations stoked by rising food prices and endemic unemployment. Tuition cuts and employment programs for university students suggest similar motives, addressing grievances that might drive Yemeni youth to the barricades.

Government inducements have their limits, however. With oil revenues falling nearly 50 percent since 2008, Saleh’s domestic largess now depends on foreign aid. And with most of Yemen’s growing population living on less that £1 per day, concessions to government workers are unlikely to ease the country’s crippling structural poverty. A looming agricultural and ecological crisis compounds these challenges. Despite falling water tables and a rising population, as much as 60 percent of the country’s fresh water is still used to cultivate qat, a narcotic plant ubiquitous in Yemeni homes and markets.

None of these trends favour stability. Nor does the intermittent Houthi rebellion in the north or the simmering secessionist movement in the south. Nor, for that matter, does the persistent presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its presumed infiltration of indigenous tribal networks. With the government writ increasingly limited to Sana’a, and with an estimated 9.9 million small arms circulating within a population of 23 million, there has been no shortage of speculation regarding Yemen’s possible collapse.

Enter the revolutionaries. From Algiers to Amman, an unprecedented wave of Arab populism is now demanding greater liberty and accountability from reluctant and often recalcitrant regimes. Frustration with corruption and nepotism saw the fall of Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January. Anger over economic stagnation and police brutality sparked the uprising that forced Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak into early retirement. Yemen is no different. With an estimated 20,000 protestors massing in Sana’a on February 3, many Western observers wondered whether Saleh would suffer the same fate.

At first blush, the similarities between these countries are noteworthy. Each is an Arab republic with a strong presidential system. Each is dominated by nationalist ruling party and associated oligarchies. Each cast itself as a bulwark against radical Islamist militancy. Each maintained a repressive internal security apparatus. Against this backdrop, the populist impulses evident in Tunis, Cairo, and Sana’a appear–at least superficially–to reflect shared grievances.

Indigenous dynamics tell a different story, however. The Tunisian uprising evolved from economics to politics, with street protests over unemployment, food prices, and poor living conditions opening the way for lawyers and trade unionists seeking free expression, electoral politics, and an end to official corruption. The Egyptian revolution evolved in the opposite direction. Sparked by activists protesting police impunity and the country’s Emergency Law, the movement transformed itself as ordinary Egyptian mobilized against high unemployment, low wages, and endemic corruption. Both uprisings were dynamic, organic, and spontaneous, with the dominant actors operating outside the established order.

Recent protests in Yemen lack this organic spontaneity. Though inspired by images from Cairo and emboldened by the victory in Tunis, protestors have not organized general strikes, mobilized the masses, or maintained continuous, self-sustaining demonstrations in central Sana’a. To the contrary, the otherwise sizable protests have been scripted affairs staged by Yemen’s political opposition. Even the so-called “Day of Rage” held on February 3 exhibited a pro forma quality, with protestors disbanding in a manner reminiscent of past opposition rallies.

This is not to diminish the depth of the Yemeni oppositions’ grievances. In southern Yemen, for example, protestors affiliated with the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) have clashed regularly with government security forces since 2008. Many of these demonstrations turned violent, spawning periodic gun battles and brutal crackdowns by state security forces. Yet unlike Tunisia and Egypt, government crackdowns in Aden and other southern cities have not fomented a national insurrection–at least not yet. Instead, populist impulses in Yemen tend to be captured–and consequently mediated–by existing social and political structures.

Fragmentation within Yemen’s main opposition movement illustrates this point. Formed in 2005, the Joint Meetings Party (JMP) is an umbrella organization comprising the YSP, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al-Islah), and three small left-leaning parties. Al-Islah, in turn, is a loose confederation of tribal leaders, Salafi groups, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This multilayered structure limits the JMP’s capacity to foster transformative change. Faced with ideological differences and coordination challenges, its constituent parties have traditionally placed greater emphasis on countering Saleh’s regime than creating a credible alternative to it.

This entrenched opposition is poorly positioned for revolutionary politics. Rather than concentrating public outrage, the JMP’s amalgamation of diverse interest and ideologies tends to dissipate it. And rather than contesting Yemen’s dysfunctional political order, its members appear confined within it. These limitations may explain the JMP’s apparent reluctance to evolve beyond staged demonstrations. With Saleh’s recent concessions creating the possibility of free parliamentary and presidential elections, the opposition may turn to the ballot box rather than the barricades.

Two wildcards might galvanize this otherwise reluctant opposition. The first is escalating violence in the southern and western provinces. As recently as February 12, reports from Aden and other cities indicated renewed clashes between government security forces and protestors demanding independence. If such strife persists, then political demonstrations could potentially devolve into a secessionist insurrection.

The second source of instability lies in the modest demonstrations now staged by students and scholars. These intellectuals share little with the average Yemeni, and seem unlikely to evoke public sympathy. Yet according to unconfirmed eyewitness reports, the Yemeni government dispatched plain-clothed police officers and pro-regime demonstrators to central Sana’a on February 11 to disperse young Yemenis celebrating Mubarak’s fall. These overreactions recall the blunders witnessed in Tunis and Cairo. If recent events offer any lesson, it is that state coercion can empower authentic dissent in powerful and often unpredictable ways.

Christopher Swift is a fellow with the University of Virginia’s Centre for National Security Law. His forthcoming book examines al-Qaeda’s relationships with indigenous Muslim insurgencies.