Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a Yemeni political researcher and analyst, talks about the challenges facing his country, describes the nature of the uprising taking place there and shares his views on the prospects for change.
Sanaa'a, Mar 17, 2011
On the political and economic problems facing Yemen:
Yemen is probably the hardest [state in the region] in terms of economic challenges and development challenges. The people of Yemen are the poorest in the region. The state in Yemen is by far the weakest, compared to Libya in the sense of [the] absence of a real state, real institutions.
I think that in a way, the grievances are similar, whether it is Egypt or Yemen or Libya or Tunisia, in that people are disempowered; people are marginalised. And the few at the very top monopolise the power and the wealth of the country, the level of corruption in Yemen is … definitely worse than Egypt and maybe as bad as Libya.
In terms of the social indicators, the Yemeni society is very backward. Only 35 per cent of the population is in major cities; the rest are rural. The level of education, believe it or not, in terms of literacy, Yemen and Egypt are almost equal. But in terms of education at large, Yemen falls behind. The number of qualified confident university graduates is much smaller in Yemen than it is in Egypt.
The middle class is very small in Yemen. That is a serious constraint on social mobilisation. The middle class has been basically disseminated by the ruling elite because they saw it as a potential political competitor so they made every effort to ensure the middle class disappears, by impoverishing the people, making them easier to control.
On the role of al-Qaeda in Yemen:
The fact that there is a Houthi rebellion in the north and a strong secessionist movement in the south should not be an indication of the weakness of Yemeni society; it is an indication of the weakness of the regime.
These are self-inflicted wounds. There was no need to have a southern secessionist movement and no need to have a Houthi rebellion. It was the mismanagement of the regime that led to these challenges and to some degree you can even say that about al-Qaeda. This current regime chose to host every violent extremist that came down the road from the period since the early 1980s onwards. And so we are paying the price. Al-Iman University, a major ideological centre for violent extremists, is being supported by the regime. And it just started new branches in Omran and Hadramout with government support.
These are self-inflicted wounds. The people of Yemen have lived under previous regimes. They have seen power vacuums and they did not turn into Somalia, they did not fight against each other. They were just as armed as they are now and the government was even weaker than it is now.
I am not worried about the ramifications of regime failure in Yemen because I think Yemen is used to it.
There is a longstanding alliance between Islamic extremists and the regime, and when 9/11 took place, they became sensitised to the fact that al-Qaeda connected groups cannot be accepted and they kicked them out of the country. But they maintained their alliance with the broader political tract, and until they see that it is costing them, they will not disassociate themselves from these extremists.
It has been a major complaint of Western countries as you see in WikiLeaks, they frequently and bitterly complain that the regime manipulated al-Qaeda to extort benefits without having to give any or make any serious effort in fighting terrorism.
On the collapse of the paradigm of the police state:
Yemen is only part of a regional trend and I think it has to do with the fact that the paradigm of the police state has finally fallen apart. If you notice, until the mid-1970s Arab countries had coup d'etats all the time, because the ruling elites had not developed the best mechanisms to control their people. From 1975 onwards, they actually came upon the best mechanism, and that was an arrangement of very elaborate control of media, of security with several layers of security, of civil society of labour unions etc, and that paradigm worked for many many years and created this fear of resistance amongst the Arab peoples.
The introduction of new technology, especially satellite TV, the internet and mobile phones, allowed people to communicate and to learn about each other without the control of the state and I think that led to a critical mass of courage and determination to move and overthrow regimes.
It is not surprising to me, although people ask, why Tunisia? Well, Tunisia had the highest percentage of middle class. So it was the middle class that made it. In Egypt, as soon as they saw Tunis, and saw the success of the revolution in Tunisia, they were prepared to challenge that barrier of fear and create their own revolution, and now it is spreading elsewhere.
On Yemen's Square of 'Change':
Ours is a benevolent dictatorship, so the level of anger is not as great I have to admit. Most of the fallings of the regime here are not by commission, they are by omission: failing to enforce law, failing to protect peoples' rights, failing to provide the environment for investment and job creation, and therefore the anger is less because people do not know if that failing is intentional or inevitable.
But, it is not the numbers: there is one other indicator and that is the resilience and the resistance of the protests. I like to compare it to a locomotive on a train - it does not matter how long the train is as long as there is a locomotive that keeps chugging along, and our locomotive is chugging along and it will not stop.
With the success of the Egyptian revolution, when young organisers (in Yemen) decided to start their own sit-in, the government was quick to jump on Tahrir Square, to deny it to the opposition because the symbolism was just too much. That was understandable. What continued after that, and which embarrassed the regime was that they pitched tents, which of course we Yemenis pay for, and gave them to representatives of various governates.
Many of them are forced by the usual coercive methods: they will be denied jobs, they will be denied welfare payments, they will lose developments projects – that is what has been used in past instances, in elections and so on. And they have populated the square – it is now a major tent city and the stench is God-awful. I have come to call it the cesspool of Tahrir and that really gives a very interesting contrast between that cesspool and the lively and positive atmosphere you see in Taghyeer Square where the youth are holding their sit-in.
The word Tahrir - meaning liberation or freedom, is where the government chose to take over and build its little cesspool. Taghyeer Square is where the youth chose-right in front of Sana'a University - to hold their sit in and start their activities. And Taghyeer means change.
On the denial of rights:
[There has] been a long experience of marginalisation, lack of equal opportunity, lack of justice and rule of law, and a lack of equality under the law. The law is applied selectively and usually against the common man by people in power. When regime figures or even opposition figures [who] happen to be powerful fight each other in the streets of Sana'a and kill civilians, nobody punishes them, not even the opposition guys.
And the average person is on the receiving end, being shot, and they have just had enough. Many of them you will find have applied for civil service jobs and have been waiting for three or four or five years. When the jobs became available, they were given to people who are well connected. Competent individuals could not get these jobs. The marginalisatio n and denial of basic rights is what drives people. It is not the oppression of Egypt or Libya, but it is more the denial of rights.
On borrowing from the Egyptian regime's manual:
They [the Yemeni government] are borrowing from the manual for regime change that [was] used by the regime in Egypt. They are basically copying all the mistakes made by the regime in Egypt; the use of thugs, cracking down on the media, trying to create an alternative reality by saying things like the youth are the ones shooting at the thugs. I mean that kind of stuff is exactly what the Egyptians did and the end result is going to be exactly the same. It is amazing how this regime continues to choose to commit suicide.
On the need for action:
As the opposition was organising a major rally on February 3, the president came out on TV and gave promises that he would not run again in 2013 at the end of his term, that he would not try to pass on power to his son and he would no allow constitutional amendments that would make that possible. So he was viewed as pro-active and smart.
However, since making these promises he has not made any concrete steps to convince people of what he was saying. To the contrary, he had a slip of tongue the other day when he said "people who say the regime must go - we will go only through the ballot box," which suggests that he intends to run again.
He needs to take action right now if he wants to avoid regime failure. He needs to do what people know is within his power. He does not [need] to dialogue with anyone to start applying the rule of law. He does not need to dialogue with anyone to release the prisoners of the south. He does not need to dialogue with anyone to stop the attacks by the thugs. There are lots of things within his control that he is not doing.
On the misrepresentation of Yemeni tribalism:
Yemen is viewed as highly tribal, which is actually a misrepresentation. I define tribal as being those whose primary identification is tribal, i.e. if the sheikh calls them to war, they come to his aid. And that applies to about 20 per cent of the population. The other 80 per cent are either urban or peasants, and they are non-tribal. So the over-exaggeration of the tribal nature of Yemen is misplaced.
Secondly, the tribal structure has been the mainstay of regime power and the regime has done everything it could to increase the power of the tribe at the expense of the state but that has not prevented social change from occurring.
As tribesmen move to the city, they become urban. As they go to schools, they begin to join other horizontal affiliations, such as being a student or an accountant or a doctor or a member of a national party. I do not think Yemen is as tribal as the regime tries to present it to the world, or as foreign observers sometimes suggest.
I think that if there is a power vacuum that the tribes will actually stand aside and let normal mechanisms of social control that have been exercised in previous power vacuums to function, and that is consensus building and negotiation by representatives of various groups. The tribes would be represented by the sheikhs, the technocrats would be represented, the military would be represented and all of these would sit around the table and refashion a political system.
On the prospect of a power vacuum:
If a power vacuum should happen, if the regime should fall, then I do not think there will be much more chaos than what happened in Tunisia. You have to take into account that even under this regime chaos has been part of our lives. The regime has chosen not to exercise its responsibility as a state, has not applied the rule of law, and not enforced justice.
So the level of chaos that will result from a power vacuum will not be much worse than what we have today. It will last longer, I am sure, because what needs to be restructured is a lot more, because we have no state, we have very little state building behind us, much of it is still ahead of us, and that will lead to some degree of instability and chaos but I must stress that it will not be much different from what is being exercised today.
Consensus building and negotiation comes naturally to the political elite of Yemen because we have always had a weak state, so power vacuums are frequent. To be honest I am talking about north Yemen because the experience of south Yemen has been banished since the defeat of the OISP military in the civil war of 1994. We are able to deal with a power vacuum much better than people who are used to a strong central state, and therefore we will probably go through this with relative ease.
On 'chaos by design':
For a number of years people have been complaining about the weakness of the state in Yemen and a lack of rule of law and kidnapping and tribal wars and all these signs of state failure and people were surprised because we have the resources to have some modicum of a state, but it was by design that the state chose to withhold its functions and not practice them because when there is greater chaos the possibility of controlling the few remaining sources of power becomes easier, so it was a mechanism for control.
And corruption is just part of it. The regime depended on a network of patronage to exercise its authority … and control in lieu of state institutions. Now how do you reward your clients in a network of patronage since the law does not permit it except through corruption? So corruption became the main mechanism of state control.
On the tribal make-up of the government and opposition:
So this is the way the tribal scene is in Yemen: the dominant tribal confederacy is the Hashid tribal confederacy [which] President Saleh and his family come from and where the Ahmar family are the sheikhs of sheikhs, the grand chiefs of the confederacy and the al-Ahmar's are now amongst the top leaders of the opposition which makes the entire exercise sound like a little elitist competition over spoils of war, but it is not.
I think there is real divide between the opposition and the ruling party, but the tribal nature of society has not reflected itself amongst the political divisions of the elite. The leaders of the opposition, for example come from various tribal affiliations and they are not viewed as representing their tribes, and they do not claim representation as per their tribes.
The ruling party, which is actually a façade, which has no power and no significance whatsoever, its more representative of tribal affiliations. The regime has been very careful to maximise the tribal representation in every organ of the state, so the majority of the leaders of the ruling party happen to tribal, while the majority of the leaders of the opposition are not tribal.
Within the ruling elite, the most prominent tribe is Hashed which extends from the northeast to the far northwest of Sana'a. It is the strongest tribal confederacy but its numbers are much smaller than the competing tribal confederacy of Bakeel, which extends all the way from the far north of Saada, around the city of Sana’a to the east, south and then southwest of Sana'a.
They cover much of the northern part of north Yemen. They are three or four times as large as the Hashed confederacy but they are divided, so their political power is limited. The representation of both Hashed and Bakeel in the ruling party is very clear and the majority of the leaders of the ruling party happen to be tribal.
But in the opposition, you do not sense that tribal representation. The Ahmar family is well represented in the opposition, from Hashed, from the north of Sana'a, but the tribal representation is still minor in the opposition.
The al-Ahmar family excites mixed feelings because they have been part of the ruling elite for a very long time. They are major beneficiaries of the system, including corruption. Now they have switched horses, some are cheering them but some are very suspicious of their choices.
On the political make-up of the opposition:
The opposition coalition is made up of several parties, the biggest of which is the Islamist party 'Islaah', and the second biggest in terms of numbers is the Yemeni Socialist Party which was the dominant party in the south before unification in 1990, and had some serious presence in the north but after the war of 1994 it lost much of its membership. There are smaller parties-Baathists, Nasserists - and there is Hizb al-Haq, which is semi-religious, representing mostly the northern Zaidis, and then much smaller parties which do not matter.