The Arab Spring and the looming threat of disintegration in Yemen
Since the commencement of the popular uprising against President Saleh of Yemen some nine months ago, country-wide chaos and social disorder has paralysed this geo-strategically important nation of the Arabian peninsula. In spite of both international and regional efforts to calm the situation, there is still no real prospect of a quick end to the ongoing instability, and Yemen is gradually emerging as the first failed story of the so called Arab Spring. And as public frustration with a lack progress increases, a new threat fuelled by the historical grievances of the past and the absence of a coherent, well-organised opposition movement is slowly but surely coming to the fore which could have unprecedented implications for the West and the wider community of nations with an interest in the Middle East; that is, a return to the post-1990 era and the emergence of two Yemens.
As is always the case in any evolving political development in the Middle East and North Africa, there are a number of external and internal factors which have collectively reduced the Yemeni public’s ability to form a united front against the elites in Sana.
Externally, exaggerated accounts of AQAP’s presence and strength in Yemen have discouraged Western powers, in particular the United States, to pressure President Saleh to comply with protesters’ demands. Western officials tend to see in Saleh a staunch ally in their fight against Islamic extremism, and thus they fear that his sudden departure will create a power vacuum which AQAP will then fill. And the recent occupation of Zinjibar, where AQAP joined forces with local militants in a group calling itself Partisans of Islamic Law, only reinforced this rather misguided view in various Western capitals.
The fact of the matter, however, is that AQAP’s core membership, according to various estimates, does not pass 400 in Yemen, and it seems to have been cultivating a weak network of support with certain politically ambitious tribes in the southern governorates of Abyan, Shebwa, Hadramawt, Aden, and Lajh. As such, the rather temporal cooperation between tribes and AQAP ought to be understood as a coalition of necessity against the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh and on the basis of the logic of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and not ideological affiliations. The very fact that local tribes eventually turned against Partisans of Islamic Law and joined government forces in an effort to recapture Zanjibar is evidence of this. It is therefore more plausible that President Saleh, in a similar fashion to his counterparts in Pakistan, has been manipulating Washington’s paranoia with AQAP to his own advantage, seeking to consolidate his power. Such assertion becomes all the more likely when one takes into account the timing of the death of Anwar al-Awlaki. Given that Washington was tipped-off about his whereabouts at a time when Saleh’s government was at its weakest point – right after his return from Saudi Arabia – there is the suggestion that Sana had been using al-Awlaki as a bargaining chip.
Another important external factor is Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary policy in its immediate neighbourhood. Since the fall of the imams in Yemen, Yemen’s weakness has arguably benefited Saudi Arabia. For many decades, Saudi Arabia has conducted what many Yemen analysts call ‘dollar diplomacy’ in order to influence developments inside Yemen. And given the economic situation of Yemen, this strategy has, to some extent, been successful in ensuring Saudi influence.
Today, Riyadh has no shortage of Yemeni clients keen on ruling the country. Yet, Saudi Arabia is struggling to install its allies who will be able to put an end to the ongoing political crisis in Yemen, not least because there has been an internal dispute on who to support in Yemen. More importantly though, youth activists who operate outside of the formal political process have emerged as decisive players in Yemen’s ongoing political turmoil, and this poses a serious limit on Riyadh’s ability to influence outcomes in Yemen. Saudi’s historical influence has antagonised the population somewhat. Moreover, the anti-regime youth movement neither has a recognised leader nor established links to Saudi Arabia, and hence Riyadh has found it hard to influence their behaviour and objectives. Finally, Saudi Arabia needs to find a person, or a coalition of individuals, who is acceptable to the public so there can be a modicum of stability. The trouble here is that Riyadh’s principal Yemeni clients are unacceptable to the majority of Yemenis since they are all perceived to be deeply ‘complicit in Saleh’s corrupt and authoritarian system’, and hence unlikely to pave the way for the emergence of a democratic political order.
Fearing both civil war – and how this could empower the Huthis – and sweeping political reform in Yemen, Saudi Arabia would probably prefer Saleh’s system of family rule to remain intact. To this end, it now seems that Saudi Arabia has decided to support Saleh, believing that his continuing hold on power will further weaken the grassroots coalition of activists, Yemen’s weak political parties, and parliament, and hence the prospect of a representative government in Sana. And with Anwar al-Awlaki dead, Riyadh is now optimistic that this endeavour will receive Washington’s blessing.
Internally, one needs not to go beyond Saleh’s style of governance to understand why the Yemeni public has proved so hopeless in its efforts to confront the government in a cohesive and well-coordinated manner. Throughout his 32 year rule, President Saleh – a military general by profession – has managed to concentrate all powers in the Office of the President. As a consequence, the cabinet, parliament, and other state institutions have, to a large degree, been marginalised from relevant decision-making processes. He has established an inclusive patronage structure binding tribes, opposition politicians, businessmen, and religious figures into a web of personal loyalty through the distribution of oil rents. In the tribal context of Yemeni politics, this formula has indeed ensured Saleh’s survival but it has also distorted party politics, stifled grassroots political participation, increased corruption, and, most importantly, retarded efforts towards meaningful integration of the north and south.
In this context, analysing the ‘Southern Question’ and the evolvement of a political movement affiliated with it will help to shed some lights on the dynamics of today’s political crisis in Yemen and how the Arab Spring is leading to the collapse of the Republic of Yemen. In 2007, a broad-based popular protest movement known as the Southern Movement (SM) and consisting of mainly retired and/or sacked southern military officers emerged as a rights-based movement seeking ‘equality under the law and a change in relations between north and south within a united country’. Their immediate demands included an increase in salaries and retirement wages, as well as an end to the northern discrimination towards southerners, both in commerce and wider society. For its part, Sana responded to these demands with repression and targeted co-option, and so the SM began to call for southern independence by 2009. Interestingly, as the winds of change in the Arab world were approaching Yemen, the SM’s influence and popularity in the south were clearly on the ascent.
Initially, the uprising facilitated new cooperation and coordination between protesters in the north and south. Realising that insistence on southern independence would potentially undermine the shared and immediate goal of regime change, the SM members, for example, agreed to cooperate with anti-regime protesters in the north in order to precipitate the regime’s collapse. Similarly, independent activists as well as opposition party members in the south unaffiliated with the SM joined anti-regime protests.
However, 32 years of discrimination combined with the central government’s weakness and nation-wide unpopularity ensured that this cooperation was not only tactical but also a short-lived one. Gradually, disagreements with regards to negotiations with the regime over a transition of power emerged between southerners and northerners with the former demanding Saleh’s immediate resignation. Southerners were, and still are, antagonised by northern parties’ lack of acknowledgment of their contributions to the ongoing protests, and once the two sides failed to reach an agreement on ‘how to prioritise the southern issue in a post-regime transitional period’ the initial euphoria in the south over coordination with the north was replaced with vocal calls for both regime change and independence. And to make matters worse, the dangerous discourse of ‘us versus them’ – that is, ethno-cultural differentiation – has now (re)entered the political discourse of southerners, who increasingly justify their calls for independence on the basis of cultural distinctiveness between ‘a predominantly tribal north and an allegedly civilian south’. This is why the recent meetings of southern activists in Cairo and Brussels, where they called for a ‘federal state divided into a northern and a southern region with each region having the right to form an independent parliament and exercise absolute authority over its natural resources’ and ‘complete and unrestricted independence in accordance with southerners’ collective will, and without outside interference’ are extremely worrisome.
Simultaneously, the disruption of the patronage system in conjunction with the political opportunism of regime insiders has led to what could be called ‘mass regime defections’ as many ‘outsider officials’ – those who do not come from President Saleh’s own tribe – no longer see a (political) benefit in being seen as associated with the government. In contrast, they appear to think that the more they distance themselves from the President’s inner circle, the more their political fortunes will improve. Interestingly though, defections and the prominent role played by existing political parties and former regime insiders have only managed to frustrate ‘original protesters’ for two broad reasons. Youth activists view today’s defectors as part of the very status quo that they wish to change, while the instances of violent conflict between regime loyalists and their forces have jeopardised the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of their movement, thereby decreasing their creditability in the eyes of regional and international observers.
Looking into the future therefore, it is clear that what started as an anti-government movement led by the Yemeni youth and women is now turning into a traditional rivalry between forces loyal to the government and the JMP – a coalition of five opposition parties including Islah, the YSP, the Nasirist Popular Unionist Party, al-Haqq, and the Union of Popular Forces. This is clearly evident in the fact that the main reason behind today’s political deadlock is no longer the protesters’ rejection of the transitional compromise proposed by the international community, but the JMP’s call on their supporters to reject the compromise so as to strengthen their own bargaining position vis-à-vis the regime.
As such, what could have been a youth-led democratic revolution is now experiencing its last dying days, and the emergence of a semi-democratic Yemen is a distant possibility. With a disillusioned youth, widespread poverty and corruption, and intensified tribal and political rivalries, instead, it is very likely that the Arab Spring paves the way for an eventual disintegration of Yemen over the long-run. Political activism in the south has begun to focus on two possible ways forward: immediate separation, or a federation consisting of two regions. This first option ‘resonates most powerfully in the two governorates that lost power after the 1994 civil war and have constituted the SM’s core support base since its inception; namely, Dalia and Lahj’. Meanwhile, the federal option, which found support among only a few southern intellectuals prior to the uprising, has gained backing from a wide range of southerners to the extent that some analysts argue that a key result of the uprising has been ‘to put federalism on the bargaining table as a serious and viable way forward’.
The trouble here is that for federalism to work there needs to be a successful dialogue so that political foes can reach an agreement on the details of a power transfer deal from Sana to Aden. Alas, there is no sign Yemen is heading towards that direction and, in the words of a Yemeni activist, ‘if there is no dialogue or failed dialogue, then the result will be separation’. What this means for Yemen and the international community, in turn, is that an enduring political impasse is in the making which will certainly cause more unrest and instability in an already volatile environment. At the same time, a fully-fledged civil war between northern rival elites cannot be ruled out which, should it occur, would almost certainly prompt southern stakeholders to pursue a serious bid for independence – an effort that will be resisted by the north and could spark a violent conflict involving external actors. The reasoning behind such an assertion is that southern politicians have already spoken of their desire for the international community to back their call for independence should they proceed with it. If no helping hand emerges, they warn they will be left with no option but to turn to Tehran for assistance. The extent to which all this has the potential to affect Iranian-Saudi relations, western policy in the Middle East, and the west’s counterterrorism and anti-piracy efforts should, in short, suffice to encourage the international community to seek an end to the current crisis in Yemen before it is too late.