Yemen: Divided Dissent
By Saleem Haddad*
Sana'a- Feb 24, 2011- The popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have ushered in what many see as a new dawn in Arab politics, sparking debate about potential knock-on effects throughout the Arab world.
On paper, Yemen contains many of the elements which have inspired such protests: widespread corruption and unemployment, a declining economy, rising living costs, and a nepotistic regime that has increasingly centralized power with an ageing president who rules over a young, frustrated and politically excluded majority.
As if to acknowledge Yemen's fragility in the face of growing public anger, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president for 30 years, announced a package of economic concessions in January of this year, including pay raises, tax cuts, and an increase in price controls and subsidies. When economic measures failed to quell the growing discontent, Saleh turned to political concessions. In a speech on February 2, the eve of Yemen's own 'Day of Rage', the president announced that he would not stand for re-election in 2013 and that he does not intend to pass the presidency to his eldest son.
Despite these concessions, the Joint Meetings Party, Yemen's main opposition movement, announced that protests would carry on as planned. On the day, tens of thousands of protesters turned out, both for and against the regime. It soon became evident that these protests amounted to little more than political jockeying among the country's elite as they sought to maximize their negotiating positions. Many of their slogans seemed rehearsed, and although students wanted to protest all day, organizers - closely linked to the national oppositional movement - instructed them to go home after only two hours. In the end, apart from a few skirmishes, Yemen's day of rage ended with a whimper.
This is not to say that Yemenis are not discontent. The economy is in a downward spiral, with oil resources close to running out and the government nearing bankruptcy. Despite President Saleh's promises to raise wages, analysts predict that in about six months the government will be unable to pay salaries anymore. The latest World Bank statistics suggest a youth unemployment figure of at least 35 percent. In a country where seventy percent of the population is under 25, the frustration and disillusionment caused by the inability of young people to make a living is a potentially potent source of conflict.
There is also a growing disenchantment with the current political system in the country. The ruling party, Saleh's General People's Congress, is led and controlled by a small circle of leaders, while the opposition movement is fragmented, poorly organized, and no longer represents the interests of ordinary Yemenis. Youth associated with political parties are merely seen as a mobilizing force to push through elite-driven demands.
However, there are important structural differences in Yemen that challenge the emergence of a popular democratic movement. Firstly, Yemen's socio-economic make-up differs significantly. Both Egypt and Tunisia have a mobilized and well-connected middle-class that does not exist in Yemen. While approximately five million Egyptian youth are on Facebook, only 180,000 Yemeni youth are - less than one percent of the population.
Another key difference is that there is little national unity to mobilize Yemenis under a common national agenda. The protests that took place throughout the country have been fragmented and divisive, and often made different, sometimes conflicting, demands. In the south, up to tens of thousands of protestors have been demonstrating nearly weekly since 2007, calling for independence from the north and an end to the 'occupation'. Nearly seventy percent of southerners support dissolving the 1990 unity agreement with the north, and feel no identification with the protests happening in northern cities.
In the capital of Sana'a and surrounding areas, protests have had different agendas. The opposition held rallies calling for the implementation of proposed electoral and constitutional changes, and staged events that have essentially been an extension of the national dialogue. Pro- Saleh tribesmen, bussed into Sana'a by the regime, descended on Tahrir Square on the eve of Yemen's 'Day of Rage', calling for the president to stay and forcing the opposition-led protests to relocate demonstrations to Sana'a University. These two protests were largely coordinated through the established political parties, and became little more than an extension of elite-driven politics.
There was however, a small but significant number of youth not aligned to either political party that called for President Saleh to step down, and chanted slogans heard by the protesters in Egypt. These divisions are in sharp contrast to the popular protests in Egypt, where all protesters united under a clear statement: the removal of the regime.
Another element challenging the emergence of a popular democratic movement is that national identity is not a primary affiliation for many Yemenis. Although the thirty year old regime is part and parcel of the sixty year Arab nationalist project, activism of the type witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia remains a challenge in a country where tribal identity remains a primary affiliation for 35 percent of the population.
Party loyalty is not a key component of most Yemenis' hierarchy of allegiances, and the country is not as advanced in terms of affiliation with state structures and institutions. President Saleh oversees a highly complex patronage network of tribal, religious and political linkages, which remain an important part of the political landscape in Yemen. Institutional monopolies on mobilization and tribal resources are at the government's disposal, which act as deterrents for large, unified public demonstrations.
Instead of mass, grassroots political protest, public disenchantment is likely to lead to a slow and systematic fragmentation of the country, as Sana'a loses control of more and more parts of the country. Large areas are already in open revolt against the regime, with a breakaway movement in the south, attacks on the security services by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and a de-facto semi-autonomous area under the control of Houthi rebels in the north.
The consequences of such fragmentation for the international community are significant given the immediate counterterrorism concerns in Yemen. AQAP is now recognised as the most serious threat of all Al-Qaeda's franchises. The United States has been trying to battle AQAP through Saleh's government, with 250 million dollars in military aid allocated for this year. The fear is that if Saleh loses power, it will be impossible to contain the spread of AQAP throughout the rest of the country. What this aid is slowly doing, however, is propping up a weak and unpopular regime with little control outside of Sana'a and the surrounding districts.
Because of the corruption and systematic deterioration of the country at the hands of the political elite, genuine street protest will likely continue over the coming months. The overarching point these fragmented protests do raise is the question of political inclusion - a long, complex but necessary discussion to be had if the country is to avoid slow disintegration. One potential avenue is to apply pressure on the regime to implement decentralization plans that have already been approved. However, at this stage there is a lack of political will at the top to push through with planned reforms necessary for social and political cohesion.
The night Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt, spontaneous protests erupted once again in Yemen, and for the first time, most of those present were from outside the umbrella of the opposition. Protesters, mostly youth, took to the streets to celebrate the fall of Mubarak, and in towns from Sayyun to Taizz and Sana'a, celebratory chants gave way to calls for President Saleh to follow Mubarak's lead. The response from pro-regime actors was swift, as thugs descended onto Yemen's Tahrir Square to beat off protesters with sticks and batons. Despite this, these youth-led protests, not aligned to either party, continue to grow steadily.
While Yemen faces unprecedented challenges, the protests in Egypt and Tunisia have shown many youth in Yemen how non-violent means of political participation can produce tangible changes. In a country long dominated by violent resistance to elite rule, from the Houthi rebellion in the north to AQAP, these peaceful forms of protest have allowed youth a forum to re-engage with the political process in the country. The question remains whether youth will be able to make their voices heard in such a challenging environment, and if enough political will can be mustered from the political elites-both in power and in opposition-to engage effectively with the wider population and implement much needed reform.
* Saleem Haddad is a consultant on the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. He has also worked with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Iraq and Yemen, the Center for Strategic Studies, the Overseas Development Institute and as a consultant to the European Commission on Euro-Mediterranean relations.
Source: The World Today, Volume 67, Number 3