Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (II): Yemen between Reform and Revolution
Middle East/North Africa Report N°102
10 Mar 2011
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Even before the popular wave from Tunisia and Egypt reached Yemen, President Saleh’s regime faced daunting challenges. In the north, it is battling the Huthi rebellion, in the south, an ever-growing secessionist movement. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is showing mounting signs of activism. Sanaa’s political class is locked in a two-year battle over electoral and constitutional reforms; behind the scenes, a fierce competition for post-Saleh spoils is underway. Economic conditions for average Yemenis are dire and worsening. Now this. There is fear the protest movement could push the country to the brink and unleash broad civil strife. But it also could, and should, be a wake-up call, a catalyst for swift, far-reaching reforms leading to genuine power-sharing and accountable, representative institutions. The opposition, reformist ruling party members and civil society activists will have to work boldly together to make it happen. The international community’s role is to promote national dialogue, prioritise political and economic development aid and ensure security aid is not used to suppress opposition.
Events in Tunisia and Egypt have been cause for inspiration with a speed and geographic reach that defies imagination. In Yemen, their effect has been to transform the nature of social mobilisation, the character of popular demands and elites’ strategic calculations. They emboldened a generation of activists who consciously mimicked their brethren’s methods and demands, taking to the streets and openly calling for Saleh’s ouster and regime change – aspirations many quietly backed but few had dared openly utter. The official opposition, tribal leaders and clerics at first mostly stood on the sidelines. But as protests steadily grew in size – and as the regime security forces resorted to heavy-handed violence – they played catch-up and have come to espouse some of the demonstrators’ more ambitious demands.
Largely caught off guard, the regime’s response was mixed. It has employed harsh tactics, particularly in the south, arresting, beating harassing and even killing activists. By most accounts, supporters donning civilian clothes took the lead, wielding sticks, clubs, knives and guns to disperse demonstrations. Police and security personnel at best failed to protect protesters, at worst encouraged or even participated in the repression. The events on 8 March, when the army used live ammunition against demonstrators, represent a worrisome escalation.
The regime also mobilised supporters, organising massive counter-demonstrations. Some likely joined due to financial inducements, yet it would be wrong to dismiss them so readily. Saleh still enjoys genuine support born of tribal loyalties and nurtured by a deep patronage system that doles out benefits. He benefits from a large wellspring of negative legitimacy, given the absence of a clear or popular alternative leader. Finally, the president has been compelled to make a series of unprecedented concessions, notably regarding presidential term limits and hereditary succession.
None of these tactics appears to have worked. Violence boomeranged, enraging the youth movement and attracting more supporters to the protesters’ side. Regime efforts to rally supporters have met with some success, yet every day sees more defections from traditional pillars of support, including tribal heads and clerics. Saleh’s concessions, impressive as they might have seemed to him, are viewed as both insufficient and unworthy of trust by protesters who continue to come out in force.
What comes next? It is easy to look at Tunis and Cairo and predict the regime’s rapid demise. Some traits are shared. Far more even than Tunisians or Egyptians, Yemenis suffer from poverty, unemployment and rampant corruption; if economic disparity and injustice are an accurate predictor of unrest, the regime has reason to worry. As in those preceding cases, the demonstrators have condensed their demands into a call for the leader’s unconditional departure, and they are displaying remarkable resilience and ability to expand their reach in the face of regime counter-measures.
Still, Yemen is neither Egypt nor Tunisia (though, for that matter, nor was Egypt like Tunisia, which says something about how oblivious popular protests are to societal differences and how idle is speculation about what regime might be the next to go). Its regime is less repressive, more broadly inclusive and adaptable. It has perfected the art of co-opting its opposition, and the extensive patronage network has discouraged many from directly challenging the president. Moreover, flawed as they are, the country has working institutions, including a multi-party system, a parliament, and local government. Qat chews are a critical forum for testing ideas and airing grievances. Together, these provide meaningful outlets for political competition and dissent, while preserving space for negotiation and compromise.
Other significant differences relate to societal dynamics. Tribal affiliations, regional distinctions and the widespread availability of weapons (notably in the northern highlands) likely will determine how the transition unfolds. There is nothing resembling a professional military truly national in composition or reach. Some parts of the security apparatus are more institutionalised than others. Overall, however, it is fragmented between personal fiefdoms. Virtually all the top military commanders are Saleh blood relatives, who can be expected to stand by his side if the situation escalates.
Then there is the matter of opposition cohesion, which has proved critical in successful regional uprisings. Preserving unity of purpose amid the ongoing Huthi rebellion and tensions between northerners and southerners will be challenging. In the south, the movement best equipped to mobilise protesters, the Hiraak, promotes secession, an agenda around which other Yemenis hardly can be expected to rally. While Hiraak supporters recognise that a strong protest movement in the north benefits their cause by distracting the security apparatus, the link thus derives from strategic opportunity, not cooperation in pursuit of a common goal. This may be changing: youth activists are seeking to transcend geographic divides, and the umbrella opposition group – the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) – is building closer ties with rebels in both north and south. It is too early to predict the outcome, which could well determine Saleh’s fate.
The spectre of descent into tribal warfare likewise makes many Yemenis nervous. A potentially bloody power struggle looms between two rival centres within the Hashid tribal confederation – one affiliated with the president, the other with the late Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar’s sons. Rules of the game are in flux, presenting an uncommon opportunity for serious reform – but also for violent conflict.
The protesters, with the wind at their backs, expect nothing less than the president’s quick ouster. The president and those who have long benefited from his rule are unlikely to give in without a fight. Finding a compromise will not be easy. The regime would have to make significant concessions, indeed far more extensive than it so far has been willing to contemplate. To be meaningful, these would have to touch the core of a system that has relied on patron-client networks and on the military-security apparatus. The opposition and civil society activists have a responsibility too. A democratic transition is long overdue, yet they should be mindful of the risk of pushing without compromise or dialogue for immediate regime change. The outcome could be a dangerous cycle of violence that jeopardises the real chance that finally is at hand to reform a failing social contract.
To the Opposition Parties:
1. Continue to support youth- and civil society- led peaceful protests both rhetorically and, on a case by case basis, through official participation by the Joint Meetings Parties (JMP).
2. Pursue negotiations with the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and religious leaders on a plan for the peaceful transfer of power.
3. Propose a specific timeline and prioritised agenda for an inclusive national dialogue.
4. Suggest far-reaching, immediate reforms to:
a) ensure implementation of regime promises not to extend the president’s term or pass the office to his son; and
b) shift power from the presidency and the military-security establishment to a more representative civilian government.
5. Keep a distance from the increasingly acrimonious power struggle pitting the Saleh and al-Ahmar families.
6. Maintain pressure on the regime to hold it accountable to its reform commitments through popular protests; international observation of the national dialogue; agreement on a timeline for the transition; and a media campaign.
7. Intensify efforts to reach out to and coordinate with Huthi supporters and members of the Southern Movement (Hiraak) willing to seek peaceful reform.
To Reformers within the General People’s Congress:
8. Advance concrete suggestions on an agenda and timeline for a peaceful transition of power and an inclusive national dialogue.
9. Work with members of civil society to pressure the president to undertake immediate action on his reform commitments (including no extension to his term; no transfer of power to his son; a genuine national dialogue; protecting rights of protesters and punishing those who violated them).
10. Invigorate the multi-party system by either:
a) resigning from the GPC and forming a new party comprising reformers from across the political and regional spectrum; or
b) reforming the GPC from within by activating party membership at all levels and empowering urban youth within the party structure.
To The President and his family:
11. Respect the rights of all citizens – including in the south – to peaceful protest and assembly and prosecute perpetrators of violence against demonstrators.
12. Take verifiable steps to ensure implementation of promised reforms regarding presidential term limits and inheritance of power.
13. Pursue negotiations with the JMP and religious leaders on a plan for the peaceful transfer of power and national dialogue, including meaningful curbs on the power and privileges of the president’s Sanhan tribe through civilian oversight of the military-security establishment.
14. Halt use of inflammatory rhetoric against the JMP, protesters, the Hiraak and the Huthis.
To the Friends of Yemen, including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the G8, as well as representatives from the UN, the EU, the Arab League, the IMF and the World Bank:
15. Facilitate the national dialogue through willingness to serve in an observer role;
To Saudi Arabia:
16. Channel efforts through the Friends of Yemen process rather than via engagement with individual sheikhs;
To Western donor governments, including the U.S.:
17. Ensure that security assistance does not skew the playing field against reformers by:
a) recalibrating the mix, giving the highest priority to economic and political development aid;
b) taking steps to ensure military-security assistance is not used to thwart domestic opposition and peaceful protests; and
c) developing stronger ties with civil society and opposition groups, including those in the Hiraak pursuing peaceful protests.
18. Continue to make clear and public statements condemning the use of violence against peaceful protesters throughout the country.
Sanaa, Brussels, 10 March 2011