Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (II): Yemen between Reform and Revolution
Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (II): Yemen between Reform and Revolution
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
How All Sides of Yemen’s War Are Weaponising Hunger and Creating a Famine
How All Sides of Yemen’s War Are Weaponising Hunger and Creating a Famine

Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (II): Yemen between Reform and Revolution

Unprecedented protests and the regime’s heavy-handed response risk pushing Yemen into widespread violence but also could and should be a catalyst for long overdue, far reaching political reform.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

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. 

Sanaa, Brussels, 10 March 2011 

How All Sides of Yemen’s War Are Weaponising Hunger and Creating a Famine

Originally published in World Politics Review

With the world's largest hunger crisis, Yemen sits precariously on the brink of famine. Avoiding it will require all warring parties to desist from weaponising Yemen's increasingly fragile economy and return to the negotiating table.

As the fate of Yemen hangs in the balance, the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia that supports the government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is about to escalate its two-year-old war by launching a new offensive in the key Red Sea port of Hodeida. The move aims to throttle Hadi’s enemies, Houthi rebels aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it is more likely to choke the country’s population, tipping it from hunger and starvation into outright famine. 

Hodeida, the country’s busiest and most important port, is responsible for 80 percent of northern Yemen’s imports. If the Saudi-led coalition proceeds with an offensive against Houthi and pro-Saleh forces ensconced in the port, it will cut a lifeline sustaining the bulk of Yemen’s population, including in the capital, Sanaa. 

Yemen is almost totally dependent on imports for staple commodities, with 17 million people out of a population of 24 million currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Four million are acutely malnourished. Already in December 2016, Yemeni women and children made up almost two-thirds of those suffering acute malnutrition.

Avoiding famine—if this is still possible—will require Saudi-backed forces to refrain from what promises to be a protracted and bloody battle for Hodeida that is unlikely to do anything but encourage the Houthi-Saleh alliance to open fronts elsewhere, including even inside Saudi Arabia, and appeal increasingly to Iran for military support. There is no alternative to using the Red Sea port in terms of location and infrastructure to ship food to the Houthi- and Saleh-controlled north.

Since war broke out in March 2015, both Saudi-led forces and the Houthi-Saleh bloc have weaponized Yemen’s economy by hindering the movement of aid and commercial goods to areas they are besieging. Shortages, delays and long queues for food quickly resulted.

Read the full article at World Politics Review.

Contributors

Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
JoostHiltermann
Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula