January 5, 2012
Ongoing anti-government protests, attacks by Islamic extremists and desires in the south to break from the north, have fueled concerns that Yemen could become another Somalia.
Yemen is a tourist's dream with wild and rugged mountains, picturesque medieval homes in the capital, Sana'a, and the Yemeni's famous hospitality. For a long time, the country was a popular destination among globetrotters looking for a different experience.
But, foreign tourists haven't been going there for some time. Most foreign businesses have pulled out, aid organizations have quit the country and embassies have reduced personnel to a minimum.
The situation in Yemen, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is too dangerous.
Somewhere between hope and dread
Most Yemenis themselves cannot leave the country. They are left dangling between hope and dread. They are hoping for an end to the authoritarian regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and a new, democratic, beginning. What they dread is a violent escalation of the internal power struggle and a full-blown civil war.
For months, people have been demonstrating on the streets demanding the ouster of President Saleh. In November, after long, drawn-out negotiations chaired by the Arab Gulf states, Saleh signed an agreement obligating him to step down. In return, Saleh, his family and closest aides were assured exemption from prosecution.
Since then, Saleh has officially handed over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, but the return to normalcy that everyone had hoped this would bring has failed to materialize.
There are still regular demonstrations, mostly in the capital and Yemen's second largest city, Taizz. Protesters are still dying. At the end of December, government troops in Sana'a fired shots at a crowd of demonstrators, killing at least 13 people.
In the meantime, government workers and civil servants have joined the protests with their own demonstrations. Even members of the security forces have risen up against their superiors.
Public wants punishment for Saleh
Horst Kopp, a geographer and long-time observer of Yemen, is not surprised that the protests are continuing.
"The deal with Saleh ignores the most important demand of the demonstrators. They oppose Saleh's exemption from punishment," he says.
The protesters want Saleh to answer for the shots that were fired at peaceful demonstrators. Hundreds of people have been killed in Yemen since the protests began early last year.
Günter Meyer, a Yemen expert at the University of Mainz in Germany, pointed to another shortcoming of the Saleh agreement.
"The old elite in the country, the Saleh supporters and the tribal and clan leaders have agreed to set up a new transitional government. However, those that triggered the protests – the young people, the intellectuals – are not part of that new government," he stressed.
"The real power in Yemen," notes Horst Kopp, "belongs to the military and the security apparatus."
Whether the elite Republican Guards, or the secret police: "Everywhere at the top are relatives of Saleh, his son, his brother, his nephews. The whole system has been tailored to Saleh's extended family in the last few years. Even the economy, as a whole, is controlled by this family," Kopp says.
For the protesters, it is not enough that just the man at the top is switched; the system remains the same. They want an entirely new beginning. Even if Saleh were to leave the country - which has been a topic of discussion lately – that would not pacify the situation. Besides, Saleh has since declared that he will not be leaving right away.
Election with no choice
The agreement reached with Saleh calls for a new president to be elected on February 21. So far, there is only one candidate: the transitional leader, Mansour Hadi, Saleh's long-time confidante.
"The elections won't change anything. He is only a puppet. Power will remain in the hands of the Saleh family," says Kopp.
Günter Meyer is somewhat more optimistic. Mansour Hadi is considered weak and does not have his own power base, notes Meyer, but he could act as an integration figure. Furthermore, says Meyer, Mansour Hadi comes from southern Yemen and could temper the desires there to secede from the rest of the country.
Until 1990, Yemen was divided between a capitalist north and communist south. After unification, the south has felt disadvantaged by the central government in the north. The south is home to the country's largest oil reserves and a large part of the national income is earned there. The center of power, however, is in the hands of the Saleh clan, which comes from the north.
"We have given the regime an ultimatum," the leader of the secessionist movement, Nasser al-Taweel said recently. "Either they recognize our legitimate demands for self-rule, or Yemen will soon disintegrate into two countries."
Shiites vs. Sunnis
But, if that weren't enough, Northern Yemen, which borders on Saudi Arabia, is seething. For weeks, the Huthis, a Shi'ite group, have been skirmishing with the majority Sunnis.
The conflict has escalated before on several occasions. In 2009, the Saudis found themselves forced to intervene. Riyadh views the Huthis as the henchmen of Iran. Until recently, the Huthis protested peacefully with the opposition against Saleh.
At the same time, the terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda, has been trying to extend its influence inside Yemen. Last year, Al-Qaeda fighters took control of Zinjibar, the capital of southern Abjan province. Government troops have since regained control of some parts of the city but have failed, so far, to drive the rebels out completely.
The situation is reminiscent of Mogadishu. Is Yemen heading toward being another failed state, like Somalia?
"The country has hit rock bottom. Without generous outside help, the destabilization will continue," warns Günter Meyer.
"I am very pessimistic about the future of the country," adds Horst Kopp, "more pessimistic than a year ago." Kopp fears "Somali conditions" and "a break-up" of Yemen.
The people of Yemen have also suffered dearly under the crisis. The economic situation is a disaster, notes Kopp. Half the population lives below the poverty level. More than 40 percent of the children are malnourished. Water and electricity supplies are interrupted regularly. "There is a terrible humanitarian disaster going on there," warns Kopp, "but the rest of the world has hardly noticed."
Author: Nils Naumann /gb
Editor: Michael Knigge