Originally posted August 2011
For most of us, the Arab Spring was about young people with aspirations fed from uncensored access to the information of the wider world, but with no opportunity to achieve those aspirations because of poverty, unemployment, and creaky, corrupt political systems ruled by dinosaurs of a past era. This is certainly true in Yemen, but in order to understand the future implications of the Arab Spring in that country we must examine the factors that made people feel that the regime offered them nothing. Athough we hear a lot about the dire poverty in Yemen, Yemenis are in some ways much better off than they ever have been. It is true that there were slight declines in per capita income in 2009 and 2010, but Yemenis are healthier, wealthier, and better educated today than ever before, in spite of their infamously high fertility rate. So why did the street explode?
We could argue that it was the expectation of a future economic crash caused by the anticipated decline in oil revenues and recent belt tightening measures that drove people to desperation. There are those that say that poverty is relative (it is) and the glittering cities of the oil-rich Arab Peninsula beckon cruelly to Yemenis whose annual per capita income does not pay a single night’s stay in a nicer Emirati hotel. Still others argue that even without looking across the Empty Quarter to the oil-rich Gulf, Yemenis still feel increasingly deprived because although the statistics show that Yemenis are better off, these are aggregate statistics that don’t reveal the increasing disparities between Yemenis that are driving social tensions. There may be some truth to any or all of these arguments, but the problem is that Yemen has been in revolt since long before the events in Tunisia and Egypt — and in a period in which the economy was looking very good. Government revenue was rising rapidly from a windfall of high world crude prices when the Huthi rebellion exploded in the north in 2004 and the mass civil disobedience movement spread across the south shortly afterwards. So it wasn’t so much people being driven by dire economic straights that fueled these revolts; rather it was the actions of the regime and the politics that exploded, though the two are often difficult to untangle.
The Huthi movement rocked Yemen in the summer of 2004 when few were expecting it. Husayn Huthi was a highly regarded religious scholar from a very prestigious family of the Zaydi elite in Sa‘ada. He was also a member of Parliament who was in fact supported by President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih for a time. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s Husayn Huthi promoted Zaydi religious education and summer camps for the young largely in reaction to the use of these same means of recruitment of the youth by Salafi and Wahabi organizations that were preaching the destruction of the Zaydis. This was a real threat to the Zaydi Sada (the religious aristocracy of the Zaydi elite) in Yemen. In the north of Yemen, a tribal leader or common tribesman is still the same tribal leader or tribesman whether or not he follows Wahabism, Zaydism, or any other form of Islam. But the Zaydi Sada have only their religious prestige to bank upon and so the threat of large-scale conversion of much of north Yemen to Saudi Wahabism or some form of Salafism was disconcerting — particularly since these new alternative forms of Islam were actively promoted by people in the Salih regime. In their defense, the Zaydi Sayyids, Husayn Huthi among them, preached religious tolerance, diversity, and the preservation of a 1,000-year-old tradition of Islam in Yemen.
But the religious issue was only on the surface; in retrospect, the factors that drove the Huthi revolt were similar to the complaints that were to drive the Hirak (the southern secessionist movement). Most of those that fought for the Huthi were not fighting for religion but for justice. They included tribesmen that felt that their tribal leaders had been coopted by the regime and were paying no attention to their issues in the rural north, or tribes that had been marginalized by people supported by the Salih regime who were coming to Sa‘ada to use their power to get rich by grabbing land or by controlling smuggling routes in the north to Saudi Arabia. It was clear to people in the north that the regime supported the Wahabi schools and distrusted the Zaydi elite, meaning that these were political issues wrapped in issues of doctrine. It wasn’t so much that Husayn Huthi, his father Badr, or his brother ‘Abd al-Malik, who now leads the movement, were fighting for Zaydism that attracted people to the movement; most of those fighting with him were fighting for their own sense of justice and survival against what they came to see as an unjust regime.
In much the same way, the southern revolt was not so much about secession as it was a rejection of the injustices that had been brought upon the south in the post-civil war era. The grumbling in the regions of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen began a few years after the war of 1994. Most southerners in fact did not support the secessionist attempt by former head of state ‘Ali Salim al-Baydh in 1994; they were for unity and having just been relieved of socialism, they were still excited about the prospect of a liberal democratic Yemen with real economic promise. But the northern regime’s attempts to build a political foundation for themselves in the south were incredibly inept and managed to alienate most of those that they should have been courting. For many powerful people in the north, the south was a treasure chest to be looted rather than a country and a people to be politically incorporated.
In 2006, local southern leaders began meeting to try to do something about it and by 2007 the “Tolerance and Reconciliation Committees” had begun to spread their word of civil disobedience across the south. The timing of the southern outbreak after the continued intransience of the Huthi rebellion in the north and when the government’s treasury was cash rich was not coincidental. Southern military officers who had been expelled from the military after the war in 1994 wanted their retirement benefits or, if they were young enough, demanded reinstatement to their positions in the military. Salih tried to appease the officers with cash payments and reinstatement of some of their benefits and positions. But the movement would not be appeased and spread to demands for greater control of their own lives and local government.
The movement was met with repression. When the regime’s carrots didn’t work, the stick came out. Thousands were jailed. Leaders disappeared for long lengths of time and the military set up bases in the main southern towns to control crowds. As the protests spread, the demands escalated to secession and formation of the southern state. Just like in the north, a small problem was mismanaged and bungled until it became an intractable problem that stubbornly refused to be resolved by the regime’s normal means. The secessionist stance was really a refusal to deal with the regime in Sana‘a any more. As soon as the new Yemeni Spring movement in Sana‘a began to grow and seriously threaten the regime in February 2011, the southern movement relaxed their secessionist demands and spoke about alternative solutions like confederations.
But the most important context for the Yemeni Arab Spring was the struggle for succession that racked the regime during the period of the revolts in the north and south. Yemen shares with Egypt and Syria the distinction of having family dynasties within republics. The discord between the ideals of democracy and progress that the regime espouses and the reality that the ruling family can groom a son to continue a patriarch’s 33-year-old rule came to represent the disparaging distance that Yemenis felt between the promises of progress that the oil-rich regime offered and the reality of conflict and corruption they experienced in their daily lives.
What distinguished the Yemeni Arab Spring is that within the core of the regime there were powerful people who opposed the succession of Salih’s son to the presidency. The question of succession had already split the Yemeni elite into destructively battling factions long before the street demonstrations of February 2011. ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the powerful general who was the military heart of the regime for decades, was adamantly opposed to the President’s son, though ‘Ali Muhsin harbored no aspirations for the presidency himself. The al-Ahmar family (unrelated to ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar) who commands the Hashid tribal federation that had been the tribal heart of the Salih regime, also opposed the succession. The al-Ahmars had their own reasons for opposing the succession in that Hamid al-Ahmar, unlike ‘Ali Muhsin, had long had aspirations for power himself. The struggle within the elite played out in the military conflict in the north with the Huthis where battles would be thrown in order to cast ‘Ali Muhsin’s troops in a bad light or to strengthen the troops of Ahmed, the president’s son. One of the Wikileaks revelations was a request for air support from Saudi Arabia whose coordinates corresponded not to enemy positions, but to the field headquarters of ‘Ali Muhsin himself.
Adding insult to the injury of the ridiculous farce of democracy that the battle for succession represented was the charade of formal institutional politics in Parliament. In 2006, the alliance of disparate socialist, nationalist, and Islamist opposition parties, dubbed the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), had forged a working political front that presented the Salih regime with a real electoral challenge. For the first time in Yemeni history the elections were real in the sense that the outcome was not clear; there was a palpable sense that the opposition could win. In the end the opposition did not win the presidential elections, but their campaign garnered real credibility. After the elections, though, the opposition parties went dormant, just when the north and the south were racked by conflict. The rebellions of the Huthi and the Hirak made the formal opposition appear completely irrelevant to the burning issues of the Yemeni street.
The political parlor games of the formal opposition included the February 2009 agreement in which they approved the postponement of parliamentary elections while procedural issues were addressed in the election committee and the voter rolls. After protests began in Yemen in solidarity with the Egyptians and the Tunisians, Salih went before Parliament on February 3, 2011 and promised that neither he nor his son Ahmed would run for the presidency in the scheduled 2013 presidential elections. He also proposed that an interim government led by the opposition be put into place to prepare for the elections in fulfillment of apparent promises in the February 2009 agreement. This was partially a move to stave off the kind of movement that had overthrown the Tunisian regime and was on its way to derailing Mubarak’s Egypt, but it was also an admission of defeat in the five year struggle to guarantee Ahmed’s succession to the presidency.
The Yemeni opposition accepted this deal, but activists in the street rejected it. From the perspective of opposition political parties, Salih recognized that he had lost his long-sought dream to install his son in the presidency and Salih appeared willing to allow the opposition to lead a new interim government. The street, however, saw the JMP’s position as cowardly; it gave Salih breathing room. They saw the president as weak, they smelled blood, and they saw the Yemeni opposition parties once again playing into the President’s hand. His offer left him in power for two more years to play more games. The street demanded the immediate resignation of the President and all of his family from the government. No more parlor games, the street demanded. The street activists’ maximal demands were very popular and the demonstrations grew rapidly. The formal opposition parties were left to sheepishly backtrack on their agreement with the President. Now the street was driving the political agenda, and the opposition parties were scrambling to catch up and they have yet to do so. They appear in public to be a bit clueless, not having much of a plan or initiative. In truth they are not clueless, but they are hamstrung by the great diversity of political trends within their coalition that slows their ability to react. As events have unfolded, the division between the formal political parties and the street has blurred. There is a lot of back and forth between them with overlapping personnel and open lines of communication. This raises the question of who is in the street and what do they represent?
This is an unresolved but critical issue in understanding events in Yemen. The formal opposition parties, the JMP, do not run the street. It began with university students. “Change Square” in Yemen is a traffic circle in front of the new university on Sixty Street, and this is “ground zero” for the street movement. But university students are not independent of Yemeni society and politics and many of the “street” activists were party activists from the main opposition parties. Tawakkul Karman is an example. She has come to symbolize the street with her relentless campaign against Salih. But she is also a party activist of a major opposition group, Islah. So Salih alleges that the street is actually a creation of the opposition parties, and in fact, a creation of his main elite rivals, the al-Ahmar sons, through their leadership of the Islah party. This is why Salih claims that what is happening in Yemen is not a popular revolt against a repressive government but an elite coup against a constitutional system. And many observers do agree that the Islah party has a dominant presence on the street.
Furthermore, Change Square is being “protected” by ‘Ali Muhsin’s first armored division, after he split from Salih following the massacre of 50 street protestors in March. For long-time Yemen observers, having ‘Ali Muhsin protect the protestors is like having the wolves protect the sheep. ‘Ali Muhsin was commander of the Salih regime’s shock troops, the one used in the brutal repression of the southern secessionist movement and the scorched earth campaign against the Huthis (Salih’s son Ahmed’s Republican Guards were involved in this as well), and the one that could always be trusted to solve the regime’s toughest security problems without being hindered by the niceties of international law or civil rights. And when protestors were calling for a march on the President’s palace, ‘Ali Muhsin was apparently key in persuading the protestors that the time had not come for such a confrontation, so there are real questions about the independence of Change Square in Yemen, particularly after they were surrounded by ‘Ali Muhsin’s first armored brigade for their “protection” The longest associates and closest rivals of Salih are casting a very long shadow over the street activists in Yemen, raising doubts about the degree of change that is really possible in Yemen.
But the party activists in the street have not acted in the interests of their respective parties and, in fact, have done quite the opposite. One of demands that emerged from the street recently is a civilian or civil state (dawla madaniyya), with the dual meaning of a non-militarized, civilian state, and a state that is ruled by law. ‘Abdul Majid al-Zandani, one of the religiously-oriented leaders of Islah, opposed the demands for a “civil state,” seeing in it a socialist demand for a secular state. He issued provocative statements saying that the Yemeni state will be governed by God’s law, not secular law. Al-Zandani’s statements were widely condemned and rejected by the street, even by those who are from Islah. Those with party affiliations on the street do not follow the orders of the party organization but tend to prioritize the street as an institution over the party. And the street is quite diverse: there are many tribesmen who abandoned their weapons and came to Change Square against the wishes of their tribal leadership, as well as a large presence of Huthis. People are cooperating from diverse and formerly hostile sectors of Yemeni society in Change Square in a way that truly represents something new.
After a month of Salih’s absence in Saudi Arabia recovering from the assassination attempt in his presidential mosque, the street impatiently appointed an interim council to govern the country. Islah’s Tawakkul Karmen was standing in the central position during the public announcement of its composition, yet the council included ‘Ali Nasser Muhammed and Abu Bakr al-Attas, former top socialist party leaders, both living in exile out of the country. The south and the socialists were heavily represented in the list of people named by the street. The street seemed to be looking for people who did not have immediate invested interests in the current set of political conflicts, yet who were known to the Yemeni public as leaders. These were people who the street calculated had the neutrality to lead Yemen to something new. This is far from the position of members of the JMP, of course, who are positioning themselves for leadership in Yemen’s future. The street does have its own agenda, which tends to be both critical of the traditional parties in the JMP and extremely hostile to the Salih regime.
Unfortunately, the membership of Change Square’s interim government did not include anyone to represent the Huthis, though ‘Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkel from the Ittihad al-Quwa al-Sha‘abi, the Zaydi political party of the al-Wazir family (and a member of the JMP), was included in the list. This omission of the Huthi was glaring precisely because one of the key achievements of Change Square has been to shift Yemeni politics to some degree from its old foundations so that, for example, the Huthis in the north and the Hirak in the south were both included as part of the coalition for change. Salih had successfully excluded these two powerful and key groups from the official body politic by branding them terrorists, traitors, and agents of foreign governments. The JMP had effectively been driven from any contact with these groups. Showing their real political force, the activists of Change Square were able to bring these groups back into the dialogue of Yemeni politics by offering the possibility of credible change in the Yemeni regime.
Thus, the question of the future implications of Yemen’s Arab Spring is tied to the relative balance of power between the influence of something new, that is represented by the street and its ability to force the formal opposition parties further into uncharted political territory in Yemen, and the long shadow of Yemen’s old elite represented by ‘Ali Muhsin, the al-Ahmar brothers in the Hashid confederation, and the leadership of the religious organizations within Islah like al-Zandani, al-Ansi, etc., which represent nothing more than a change of face on the old Yemeni regime.
Yemenis are healthier, wealthier, and better educated today than ever before