No Pink Slip for Salih

What Yemen's Protests Do (and Do Not) Mean

by Stacey Philbrick Yadav | published February 9, 2011

With cameras and Twitter feeds trained on Tahrir Square in Cairo, a series of large opposition protests have unfolded in an eponymous square in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, as well as other major cities across the country. The protests have been organized and coordinated by a cross-ideological amalgam known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP, sometimes also translated as the Common Forum), and have been identifiable by their careful deployment of protest paraphernalia -- sashes, hats, posters, flyers and more -- tinted in gradations of pink. At first glance, these protests seem to have generated substantial concessions from President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, who, having occupied some form of executive office since 1978, is the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world after Muammar al-Qaddafi. Salih pledged on February 2 to abandon his efforts to amend the constitution so as to be able to run again himself or engineer the succession of his son, Ahmad, to the presidency. Much as these steps might appear to presage far-reaching political change in Yemen, perhaps even a colored proto-revolution, there are good reasons for skepticism.


Nor is it obvious that the rallies in Yemen fit into the media-ready narrative of a latter-day “Arab awakening” dawning in country after country on the heels of the dramatic popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The demands of the political opposition in Yemen align in some ways with those of the pro-democracy protesters elsewhere, but in many more ways they diverge.

Yemen, to be sure, presents a more puzzling picture than Egypt, where a hidebound state lords it over a population that is more homogeneous than those of many other Arab countries. Forged by the unification of North Yemen (of which Salih was president) and avowedly socialist South Yemen in 1990, today’s Yemen remains haunted by regional divisions and the state cannot claim anything like full control over many outlying areas in the mountains and desert. But when the New York Times tells its readers that its staff “won’t try to game Yemen’s politics,” it is not a sign of editorial humility, but rather a kind of willful ignorance of the likely determinants of Yemen’s political future. The political opposition that is mounting the protests in central Sanaa has clear demands that, as in Egypt, are unlikely to be satisfied by Salih’s promises. And, like his fellow autocrats, Salih has many tools at his disposal for staving off the sort of reform that would strip him and his inner circle of power.

Common Grievances

A common thread connecting demonstrations across the Arab world in early 2011 is frustration with aging, bloated, yet brittle regimes that have fed for decades at the trough of US military assistance. These regimes are practiced at serving up so-called reforms that are marketed as “political openings” but have mainly reinforced incumbent power. None of the regimes is able to respond effectively to the pressing development challenges -- unemployment, petty corruption, poverty, dirty, saline drinking water -- confronted by its citizens every day. Contra the prevailing policy logic, opposition activists in Yemen and elsewhere do not see the solution to these problems in stronger states, that is, regimes more capable of mobilizing and monopolizing force. They see the remedy in stronger governments, which can respond to people’s needs because they better represent ordinary citizens. In other words, the protesters intuitively reject the argument long advanced by incumbent regimes and their foreign donors that development must precede democracy, and they champion its converse instead. From Tunis to Cairo to Sanaa, activists are seeking to attain the voice that would make both democracy and development meaningful.

The specific grievances of the political opposition in Sanaa are not new, nor are the groups who have expressed them in January and February 2011. The Yemeni opposition has coalesced for nearly a decade around an alliance of leftist, secular liberal, nationalist and various Islamist trends, the JMP. The programs of the JMP’s constituent elements do not match up perfectly, and so it is difficult at times to know exactly which demands are salient. The leadership of the Yemeni Socialist Party, for example, is divided over whether and to what extent to align with the demands of the Southern Movement (also called al-Harak), the grassroots grouping agitating for greater autonomy for the southern provinces and, increasingly, secession. And Islah, the largest of the Islamist parties in the JMP, is riven by generational and ideological cleavages over, among other issues, the role of women in the party and in Yemen’s larger political sphere. Each of these divisions divides the alliance and the parties within it -- and the regime deftly exploits the gaps.

As in Egypt, the opposition has been systematically undermined by the Salih regime, thanks not least to rapidly stepped-up US military aid, which has expanded the capacities of the security services for surveillance and coercion. While the Yemeni press is far freer than many in the region, including Egypt’s, it is increasingly embattled.  The government’s assault on the media has intensified, perhaps not coincidentally, as Yemen’s domestically unpopular strategic relationship with the United States has grown closer in the decade since September 11, 2001.

Because the JMP is an alliance of parties, each with its own partisan press, a small cadre of independent papers have valiantly resisted the state’s encroachment in order to create a kind of “virtual space” for the articulation of common JMP policy priorities and critiques of the regime. It is not uncommon to find members of the Nasserist, Socialist and Islamist trends penning editorials that appear side by side on the pages of these non-partisan publications, holding forth on a shared objective. These papers have come under strain -- as, by extension, has the ability of the JMP to craft and propound a common agenda -- at the hands of increased state surveillance and outright repression, with new techniques for prosecution on spurious charges enforced through an extra-constitutional “special court” for journalists established in May 2009. In January 2010, government forces surrounded the offices of al-Ayyam, an independent daily giving heavy coverage to the southern uprising, before invading the offices, jailing the editor and closing down the paper. Other papers have had their archives and computer servers seized, putting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources at risk. As the New York-based Committee to Project Journalists reports: “Taken together, the government’s long-standing practice of violent repression and its new legalistic tactics are creating the worst climate for press freedom since the country’s unification in 1990.” [1]

The US has registered only weak protests at the establishment of the “special court” and other manifestations of the Salih regime’s war on journalists. Indeed, as this war proceeds, the Obama administration has more than doubled US military aid, from $67 million in 2009 to $150 million in 2010, as part of a broad counter-terrorism program. Embarrassing State Department documents released via Wikileaks show that US aid has been directed to the fight against the regime’s domestic opponents, particularly the Houthi rebels in the north, with the knowledge of CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus and, thus, all the major power centers in Washington. The scope of US aid to Yemen falls far short of the billion-dollar annual contribution to Egypt, but its unpopularity -- and the purposes to which it can be put in suppressing political freedoms -- is a link between the protests in both countries.

Divergent Groups

Beyond the similarities, however, the grievances, ambitions and tactics of the Yemeni opposition differ considerably from those in other states in the region. Indeed, the Yemeni opposition is in fact composed of several groups, some of which are coherent and others only loose formations, and which compete with each other and (importantly) within their own ranks as often as they cooperate.

Most notable in international media coverage are the armed groups. In the northern province of Saada, on the border with Saudi Arabia, the rebellion led by members of the Houthi family has entered into its sixth ceasefire in only seven years, with considerable loss of civilian life caused by the government’s indiscriminate aerial bombardment and attacks on displaced persons camps. In the south, what began in 2007 as a peaceful protest movement calling for a more equitable distribution of state resources and political power was met with such repressive force that some of its members have begun to shoot back. What might have been negotiation points less than a year ago have increasingly begun to look like lines in the sand. [2] And then there is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a franchise of unknown size that has found an attractive location in Yemen’s more remote regions, where the state’s writ is shaky at best. Many analysts, including those at the Congressional Research Service, have pointed out that the Salih regime’s relationship to radical Islamist militants is complicated. Salih has made several formal commitments to Washington that Yemen will be a reliable partner in counter-terrorism operations, but has also maintained close ties to conservative cleric ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani and his fellows, who encourage vigilante violence and are accused of helping to recruit and indoctrinate militants.

The current round of civil protests, however, is led by none of these groups. The JMP coalition’s efforts to construct itself as a “loyal opposition” are in clear contradistinction to the rhetoric of open revolt elsewhere in Yemen, and also bear little resemblance to the diffuse, bottom-up movement in Egypt. With rows of plastic chairs lined up and microphones provided for some of the gatherings, the JMP’s protests in Sanaa have more closely resembled opposition rallies, with distinguished speakers enumerating demands to cheering, chanting crowds in color-coordinated costume. Even the hue of pink, the “color of love,” was chosen to highlight the civil, warm-hearted nature of the protests. The opposition’s demands, however, are substantive, and display little tenderness for the Salih regime.

The JMP, as an umbrella for Islamist, Socialist, Nasserist and other smaller parties, has been in existence since 2002. It reached the apex of its political power when it fielded a consensus candidate to run against Salih in the 2006 presidential election. While the JMP’s man, Faysal bin Shamlan, won only 23 percent of the vote, he is credited with making Salih work harder for his victory than ever before. On the way to electoral triumph, the president had to promise a number of reforms that he would otherwise have held in reserve. But since 2006 the JMP has been torn apart by internal divisions over ideology and strategy. The cleavages were thrown into sharp relief by the unanticipated rise of al-Harak, whose platform overlaps with the JMP’s, but whose captains have become more vocal and insistent as the regime responded to its demands with force. Some JMP leaders have tried to capitalize on the popularity of al-Harak, but others have feared the costs of being associated with a cause that increasingly speaks of secession. Because most JMP leaders have opted to remain oriented toward Sanaa as a “loyal opposition” formally committed to unity, they have risked losing their standing with key sectors of the population.

This dilemma is particularly acute for Islah, which has its deepest roots in the north, but worked hard in the 1990s and early 2000s to establish a base that is genuinely national. Islah accomplished its expansion, in part, through the parallel activities of the Islah Charitable Society, and in part through its leaders’ reputation for moral probity and commitment to combating corruption. For most of the 1990s, many Yemenis viewed Islah less as an opposition party than as a wing of the ruling General People’s Congress, given its northern origins and its social conservatism. But as the largely southern Yemeni Socialist Party declined in influence following a short civil war in 1994, Islah was less essential to the regime and less able to achieve its goals through collaboration with Salih. It moved steadily toward the other opposition parties, though some within Islah’s leadership have shown somewhat more flexible loyalties, particularly al-Zindani, leader of the party’s most conservative element and a close ally of Salih. As Islah assumed a prominent role in the JMP, however, Zindani’s clout eroded and a cadre of Muslim Brothers with a more progressive bent came to the fore, building alliances with members of other parties on the basis of professional associations and, for many, common experiences as student activists. These more liberal Islamists are the men and women who form the core of the JMP leadership. One of Islah’s younger leaders, Tawakkul Karman, who is also the founder of the NGO Women Journalists Without Chains, became a heroine of the opposition in January, when she was arrested on her way home from a demonstration. Immediately after her release, she returned to rally JMP protesters again.

For its part, the government has oscillated between guarded tolerance and suppression of the protests. It has arrested key activists like Karman, and in a move from the Egyptian regime’s playbook, it has reportedly deployed plainclothes police and hired thugs to harass peaceful protesters, especially women, in an effort to provoke a response that would justify retaliation with brute force. In another echo of Egyptian events, the government has staged counter-protests in support of the regime and called out the armed forces to contain any clash that might just happen to erupt between the regime backers and the JMP. Over the weekend of February 5-6, pro-Salih protesters assembled in Yemen’s Tahrir Square, while JMP protesters shifted their procession a safe distance away to Sanaa University. The opposition protests are thus not spontaneous waves of popular sentiment, as in the early days of the Cairo events, but something like animated conversations with an interlocutor who remains unmoved.

Ornamental Promises

The JMP, even as protests continue, remains preoccupied with the “court politics” of the capital and struggles to articulate a set of demands that can span the ideological stretch of its member parties. This difficulty has meant that each group has abandoned significant objectives, with the corresponding risk that core constituents will be alienated. But there is one basic commitment upon which everyone agrees -- a commitment to increased transparency, accountability, reduced corruption and a bigger voice for Yemenis across the political spectrum. Primary among these demands is the call for genuine electoral reform, particularly the adoption of a system of proportional representation, to blunt the force of the ruling party. While there have been calls for Salih’s ouster in the protests, it is these more mundane (but meaningful) objectives that have been at the heart of the JMP’s carefully (and colorfully) coordinated efforts to mobilize Yemenis for change.

Salih’s February 2 promises -- assayed and abandoned before -- are unlikely to convince anyone. In the months before the 2006 presidential campaign, for example, he vowed not to run, so that Yemen could be governed by “young blood,” and even reiterated this pledge in an interview with the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. But as the election approached, he made an elaborate show of bowing to a popular will that, supposedly, demanded his return to the presidential palace. Few Yemenis doubt that he could repeat this performance when the 2013 contest rolls around. When Salih announced that he would not run again and would not pass the presidency on to his son, he was answering the calls of protests in Cairo against Husni Mubarak and family, but not the pragmatic demands of the opposition in his own country. Outsiders should take the announcement for what it is -- an effort to link Cairo and Sanaa in the minds of Western policymakers, so that they will fear the spread of chaos and endorse the status quo.

In a January 27 report, the Economist Intelligence Unit identified three main scenarios for Yemen’s future, each of them predicated rather optimistically on Salih’s departure from the presidency. [3] First, the report mentioned the possibility of a negotiated transition to parliamentary rule, one that would include electoral reforms favored by the JMP, such as a shift from single-member districts, which favor incumbents and large parties, to proportional representation, which could better accommodate diverse constituencies. Such a scenario could absorb members of the General People’s Congress. And, indeed, several members of the ruling party have distinguished themselves from the category of down-the-line Salih regime backers by building alliances across Yemen’s partisan aisle on issues of import. The report’s authors, however, seemed more convinced by two other scenarios: In one, Yemen fragments along regional lines, leaving a vacuum in which al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula can flourish. Warring tribal factions battle themselves and al-Qaeda over discrete portions of the country, with citizens left to the tender mercies of the combatants. This vision is a version of those engendered by a widely discussed New York Times Magazine story that came out in the wake of the failed December 2009 operation of the underwear bomber, the last time Yemen figured so prominently in American headlines. [4] Perhaps this grim outlook is offered to make the remaining option look more attractive: a military coup, with the possibility of secession in the south, but increased stability for the rest of Yemen.

None of these scenarios consider the very real possibility that Salih’s promises are ornamental. Particularly as the headlines fade, he could dig in, refusing to yield to protesters’ longer-term and more substantive demands, and continuing to govern through managed chaos, leveraging the specter of crisis for more foreign aid. With US and Saudi military assistance at an all-time high, Salih’s ability to monitor and suppress the opposition, and then use his large parliamentary majority to further consolidate his power, cannot be dismissed.

Yemen’s Fickle Friends

‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s regime is frequently characterized in the Western media as “beleaguered” by a secessionist movement in the south, an armed revolt in the north and the threat of al-Qaeda. It is unclear, though, to what extent aiding such a regime by strengthening its coercive capacity offers a solution to these problems -- or even contributes to them instead. The Houthis in the north and al-Harak in the south are mobilized at least in part against the abusive excesses of the regime. Al-Qaeda exploits the regional dissatisfaction, as well as the outrage that meets the regime’s deployment of force against civilian populations.

To date, the scale of US aid tips heavily in favor of military and intelligence assistance, with over $150 million in military aid in 2010, up from only $5 million in 2006. US development assistance, at about $40 million, was focused from 2003 to 2009 on those regions that were viewed by the US Agency for International Development as “most at risk of generating political instability and providing possible refuge for terrorists.” [5] Of these governorates, only one -- Shabwa -- is in the south, where acute development asymmetries are fueling opposition demands.

US support for Yemen is now also channeled through the newly established Friends of Yemen, a donor consortium organized by Great Britain in January 2010, whose members include the Gulf Cooperation Council and G-8 nations, as well as the United Nations, European Union, Arab League, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The efforts of this organization are primarily geared toward blunting the effects of economic restructuring, with some attention paid to reducing corruption. The focus, however, remains economic, not political, thus reinforcing the conventional wisdom that underdevelopment, not unaccountable governance, is the primary source of instability in Yemen. USAID contends that it has now adopted an assistance strategy designed to respond to “the articulated needs and frustrations of communities in the neediest areas,” but it is clear that both multilateral and bilateral approaches to development in Yemen have ignored the principal demands of the organized opposition. USAID’s Country Strategy for 2010-2012 indicates that there is “considerable agreement” over the drivers of instability, yet it does not list the authoritarian state as one of them. [6] Perhaps diplomatic niceties prohibit such a forthright statement, but in the meantime the US does not seem to be listening to the opposition’s claim that meaningful political reform is the only sure path to more equitable and sustainable development.

Nor does the US appear to have any illusions about the future of political dialogue in Yemen. Reflecting on her surprise visit to Sanaa in January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that “at the end of the day, there has to be a willingness on the part of the government and the people to work together toward a common goal. And I’m not sure that any forum or any kind of meeting can produce that.” Certainly, as long as foreign donors focus on economic restructuring and US-supplied technology allows the regime to monitor and suppress its opponents, there is little reason to believe that President Salih will be inclined to change.

Endnotes

[1] Mohamed Abdel Dayem, In Yemen, Brutal Repression Cloaked in Law (New York: Committee to Protect Journalists, September 2010).
[2] April Longley-Alley, “Yemen’s Multiple Crises,” Journal of Democracy 21/4 (Winter 2010), pp. 72-86.
[3] Economist Intelligence Unit, “Saleh on the Brink,” January 27, 2011.
[4] Robert Worth, “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?” New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2010.
[5] US Agency for International Development, 2010-2012 Yemen Country Strategy, p. 1.
[6] Ibid., p. 2.

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