A month ago Yemen was teetering as the next domino in Tunisia’s revolutionary order, a threat equal to and possibly exceeding Egypt’s instability due to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Then, suddenly, Yemen’s crisis had been averted through President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s promise to reform his administration and the state’s economy. Now Yemen has returned to a bloody stalemate in the streets.
Although real factors caused this whiplash, only denial can fully explain the oscillation between “reform” and revolution. And denial could speed up the latter.
Two arguments recently fused together to temporarily suck the fear out of Yemen’s uprising. First come the reasons why Yemen is not Egypt, some of them legitimate. Yemen’s protests lack mass mobilization due to a variety of factors, although many center around the country’s decentralized nature. Saleh’s three main opposition groups - the northern Houthis, Southern Movement, and the unemployed youth (Yemen's median age is 18) - possess different objectives. One seeks regional autonomy within the current system, another outright secession, while the rest demand either employment or Saleh’s immediate resignation. This schism has left opposition parties to rally their bases, deterring the common Yemeni from seeking national unity.
Ali Saif Hassan, executive director of the Political Development Forum in Sana’a, predicted, “Yemen has a better chance of disintegration" than mimicking Egypt’s popular revolution.
On top of a deficiency in Internet, the new glue of revolution, rural tribes to the east (including those that shelter al-Qaeda) often take little interest in politics to begin with. One senior member of Saleh's ruling General Congress Party (GPC) quipped, "If you think Facebook will change Yemen, you're crazy. We don't even have electricity." And contrary to mobilizing the masses, Hamid al-Ahmar admits that opposition leaders alone should have the power to turn protests “on and off.”
A senior official in the opposition Islah Party and the son of one of Yemen's most powerful tribal sheikhs, Ahmar has inherited his deceased father’s business empire of telecoms and tourism. He didn’t mince words about grassroots complaints, warning that an uncontrolled uprising could trigger Yemen’s tribal fault lines. Most tribes are well armed and often command more local authority than the government.
"These youth are saying we are stealing their revolution," said Ahmar, surrounded by truck-fulls of heavily armed guards, at an opposition base. "They say we are taking them off the streets, and they are right."
Division extends all the way to Saleh himself, who some opposition members aren’t rushing to evict. Threats of tribal anarchy and factionalism, and of AQAP, have served as powerful checks to a popular coup. But Yemen’s own government has set the bar, with Prime Minister Ali Mujawar accusing the opposition of, "trying to duplicate what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and act as if it should be imposed on the people here in Yemen."
Explicitly rejecting comparisons to Egypt’s revolution, he told CNN, "Yemen is not Tunisia or Egypt. Yemen has its own different situation... Yemen is a democratic country. Through all the stages, elections took place. And therefore this is a democratic regime."
This description has since been floated by a variety of analysts: Yemenis’ gripes aren’t necessarily personal. Saleh enjoyed a landslide victory in 2006 after a relatively credible election, sparing him from the dictator label that stuck to Hosni Mubarak. The economy is Saleh’s main problem, not his character specifically. Some even claim that Saleh skillfully outmaneuvers his opponents within the political system rather than resorting to force.
Thus Yemen’s uprising doesn’t emulate Egypt’s conditions, and in turn became overblown.
So Yemen isn’t exactly like Egypt - does this infer that the fear is truly overblown? The answer partially depends on expectations. Anyone expecting a sudden coup may answer in the affirmative, yet those viewing Yemen as a gradual descent will likely see the same factors flowing through both states and peoples. For every reason why Yemen isn’t Egypt, equally powerful causes entwine their fates. And the greatest parallel of all: waiting to act until after the revolution explodes.
Start with Saleh’s political vulnerabilities. After ruling for 32 years, 12 as President of North Yemen and the rest over Yemen as a whole, Saleh has been around long enough to accrue deep resentment from marginalized Yemenis. While his officials claim free and fair elections, opposition candidate Bin Shamlan accepted the 2006 results as a “reality” that didn’t reflect the people's will. Or they’re trapped with one viable option. To a good segment of Yemenis, Saleh spares the country from tribal anarchy and civil war in exchange for subsistent living conditions.
Preserving Yemen’s unity, conversely pitting him against the Southern Movement, has furthered enraged a fairly cohesive section of society. Saleh has offered to negotiate with Yemen’s opposition groups only on this condition, which they’ve so far rejected.
Having maintained power for so long, protesters are naturally skeptical of Saleh’s highly publicized offer not to run again in 2013. He’s played this card before in 1999 (when he extended term limits from five to seven years) and 2006, swearing not to run only to change his mind at the last minute “for the good of Yemen.” Saleh’s every action consolidates his power while pushing his problems down the road. Maybe he will keep his promise this time under Western pressure, but Saleh just issued remarks to the effect that “U.S. and European Union guarantees are rejected.”
Mounting evidence suggests that, under the umbrella threat of instability, he’ll test his ploy again in 2013. Saleh just attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to remove term limits in January - he got caught at the worst possible time. So his promise doesn’t hold any water to the opposition.
And what about Saleh not applying force to his own people? In late 2010, WikiLeaks revealed Washington's knowledge that Saleh misappropriated U.S. training and equipment against the Houthis and Southern Movement. He also approved errant U.S. air-strikes that have, for the time being, gone silent after an initial uproar. Now riot police and “government loyalists,” a Mubarak favorite, are beating and shooting Yemeni protesters and obstructing them from gathering at Sana’a university. And playing another of Mubarak’s cards: denying responsibility.
The security breakdown is starting to irritate the very fault lines Saleh claims to stabilize. Tribal chief Hussein al-Ahmar, a member of Saleh's tribe, recently told a crowd in his home province of Amran, "It is not the armed forces, nor Saleh and his army that protect Sanaa, but the tribes of Hashed. If the authorities continue to scare the protesters with their thugs, we will have to interfere."
Last but certainly not least comes the widely-held impression that Saleh would have fallen by now if not for America’s support. While U.S. officials continue to promote a partnership with Saleh, distrust between him and his people has only increased since Washington escalated operations in late 2009. Mohammed Qahtan, a senior leader in Islah, declared, "The government is exaggerating the threat of al-Qaeda. There are two reasons for this: The government's rule is weak, and they want to get more and more money and backing from the United States."
Contrary to its intentions, U.S. policy cripples Saleh’s authority with his people and undermines the objective of counterinsurgency.
A second generalized observation of Yemen’s protests postulates the economy as Saleh’s main enemy, rather than personal animosity. But this theory suffers from intrinsic backwardness: Yemen’s perpetually stagnant economy is a main driver of discord. Comparisons are drawn between Egypt’s labor and food protests in 2008 and its 2011 mass uprising, and rightfully so. A mass uprising brings out all peoples, not just the unemployed, and unifies a variety of causes and ideologies.
But political-economic outrage cannot be separated as one builds upon the other. Those sleeping for weeks in Tahrir Square haven’t had a job in years, and the same goes for students at Sana’a University. Were Yemen’s economy to stay depressed, and Saleh unable to fulfill his economic promises, the situation could lead to the same end.
With unemployment running between 30-40%, leaving over 45% of Yemenis below the poverty line (triple and double Egypt’s figures), economic factors magnify the political belief that Saleh’s government is unresponsive to the people’s needs. Although he’s offered to reduce income taxes, raise subsidies on staple foods and fuels, give raises to soldiers and civil servants, and provide more jobs for university graduates, this wish-list is considered a hollow stall tactic to Yemen's real problems. Saleh can’t pass around a sack of cash like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and Yemenis don’t need temporary economic relief.
Depleted on oil reserves, Yemen’s economy requires a complete overhaul into new sectors and massive investments in infrastructure, a master plan that Saleh and Western donors lack the means or time to implement.
Rudhwan Masude, head of the student union at Sana’a University, explained of Yemen’s brain-drain, “Waiving tuition fees will not stop students from protesting - anyway, most of the students have already paid their fees. There just aren’t enough jobs to go round - the best students don’t think twice before leaving the country to seek work elsewhere.”
Akram Matharamy, one of the protesters, spoke more bluntly: "No one I know has a job. We graduated from university and we don't have jobs. We are poor because this regime is corrupt. Everything here is corrupt."
The combination of suppressive force, token reform, and historic mistrust is leading to what Yemeni and Western officials didn’t think could happen: spontaneous protests composed of self-motivated youths. 12-day protests have absorbed the energy of Mubarak’s fall on February 11th. Egyptian and U.S. officials used to believe that Egypt’s fractured opposition, politically divided and temporarily satiated with government raises, could never form into a mass movement.
Until it was too late to stop a popular uprising.
Although Yemen’s main opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties, allegedly seeks concessions over regime change, it has since joined the protesters to maximize its gains. Thousands began an indefinite sit-in on Saturday, hoping to prove that Saleh cannot divide and conquer them. He’s implored, "Yes to reforms. No to coups and seizing power through anarchy and killing.” And his message is gaining consistency: “You are calling for the regime to go - then come and get rid of it through the ballot boxes, not through violence."
Other threatened regimes and America have adopted this motto as their own. Yet it runs into marketing problems when the government’s violence is self-created, when its reforms cannot be trusted.
Like Egyptians, protesting Yemenis don't trust Saleh to hold a fair election and can’t expect Yemen’s diverse opposition to unite against him. That leaves this moment to take the power back. Revolutionary fever sweeping the Muslim world is fanned by a bandwagon effect; no repressed people wants to be left behind. To underestimate Yemenis’ drive - and shuffle it down the road - commits the same mistake as Hosni Mubarak, Washington, and Israel did in Egypt. And “Colonel” Gaddafi in Libya.
The longer these emotions are suppressed, the greater the explosion when they’re released.
"Within Yemen, I don't think anybody really wants to see a revolution happen,” warns Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program. "Nobody wants to see the Yemeni government fall. Regardless of what you think of President Saleh or his government, the international community needs this Yemeni government to fight terrorism. I think they (the regime) probably think they have it under control for the time being. I think they know the Americans are not going to push for big change, the Americans don't want to see him (Saleh) go.”
Has Saleh and the U.S. learned nothing from Egypt? Why does today matter more than tomorrow? What about correcting the actual roots of unhappiness? The Muslim’s world current magnitude of unrest cannot be quelled through minor concessions, which are reactive rather than progressive. Transformative governance is the only solution.
Additionally, Yemeni protesters don’t need to topple Saleh in order to produce instability, simply raise the temperature under him. The threat of AQAP doesn’t generate from Saleh’s fall, but in becoming distracted from his and America’s battle against the group. He doesn’t need to meet Mubarak's end for the collateral to spill over. Already concerned with AQAP’s “attempts” to manipulate the democratic protests, Washington is pouring more military aid into counter-terrorism training.
However AQAP has only shown an interest in taking advantage of the diversion, targeting senior military officials and government bases in its territory. America rightfully fears that Saleh’s political blind-spot will take his eye off AQAP’s growth, and that the additional instability could speed up his fall. But if Saleh stores up anger until the next attempt to dethrone him, U.S. officials won’t be able to claim “they didn’t see a revolution coming.”
And Yemen’s uprising may end the same as Egypt's.