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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
Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War
Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War

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.

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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 

Op-Ed / Africa

Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War

In the Horn, where cash-strapped regimes often teeter on the brink of financial survival and alliances are made and broken with bewildering regularity, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has found willing partners as Saudi-Iranian tensions escalate.

In the commercial melting pot of Dubai, where British bankers rub shoulders with Afghan carpet sellers, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is fighting a major war in Yemen that has sucked in several other Gulf states and four Horn of Africa countries.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two key external belligerents, have small populations and large bank accounts filled with revenue from vast oil and gas reserves. The former has made the largest financial contribution with the latter supplying most of the troops.

When they decided to intervene militarily in Yemen, in March 2015, to halt a Houthi (a Zaydi, Shiite group) rebel takeover attempt, it became apparent that they would need additional boots on the ground. Conveniently situated ports and air bases were also needed. They found willing partners in Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Most of Yemen, especially its second city, the port of Aden, is closer to Asmara, Djibouti, Khartoum, Mogadishu and Hargeisa than Riyadh, Doha or Dubai. At the Bab al-Mandab – the straits where the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet – the country is just 30km from the Eritrean and Djiboutian coastline. Geographically, Horn of Africa involvement in the war makes sense.

The other half of this equation involves the political dynamics of the Gulf states, which collectively form the GCC. The GCC is also attempting to assert itself as a grouping capable of countering a perceived Iranian encroachment. In this context, and whether justified or not, the Houthi rebellion was seen as an Iranian-backed proxy.

Follow the money

Gaining supporters for the Yemen intervention wasn't simply about military power, but was also an assertion of diplomatic strength – particularly with Sunni Arab partners such as Sudan. Regional dynamics are thus likely to provide opportunities for willing partners in the Horn. Sudan, to take one example, has a complex relationship with the Gulf, historically based on two factors.

First, the weak economy has pushed many professional Sudanese to seek employment outside the country. Saudi Arabia hosts up to 900,000 Sudanese migrant workers, the UAE 75,000 and Qatar 30,000. Since the 1989 Islamist coup in Sudan, the diaspora has become a key source of remittances, propping up the very system they were forced to leave due to a stagnant employment market and repressive political culture.

Second, due to the parlous state of the economy, Sudan is perennially searching for new financial backers. In the late 1990s and 2000s, it experienced an oil boom, relying on Chinese, Indian and Malaysian companies to fill the investment gap left by Chevron (a US oil major), which exited in 1990. The 2011 secession of South Sudan brought a sharp dip in oil revenues and exposed the limited Asian appetite in the non-oil economy.

The ideological legacy of the 1989 coup – including the new regime's refusal to show solidarity with the Gulf states by denouncing Iraq's Kuwait invasion in 1990 – brought isolation, and a close relationship with Iran. It was also a source of arms vital for fighting the war in southern Sudan.

Saudi Arabia found Sudan's Iranian links and Islamist sympathies deeply concerning and, as recently as 2014, imposed financial restrictions on its banking sector, and threatened to deport thousands of migrant workers.

A windfall for the Horn of Africa

But in late 2014 Sudan made a much-publicised shift away from Tehran, closing Iranian cultural centres in Khartoum, which it accused of spreading Shiism. When the war in Yemen started, the Saudis made an offer far in excess of what Iran was prepared to commit, with unconfirmed reports stating that Sudan received $2.2 billion in return for diplomatic and military support. Initially Khartoum made only a notional military contribution, but as Saudi and Emirati losses mounted, they asked more of the Sudanese, who in October 2015 deployed what reports estimate to be between 350 and 700 ground troops.

Eritrean, Djiboutian and Somali involvement in Yemen is more opaque. In Eritrea's case, the port of Assab is being used as an air-sea logistical hub for Saudi-Emirati operations. However, unlike Khartoum, Asmara has been silent as to whether it has deployed troops. The UN Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group wrote in September 2015 that Eritrean troop deployments would constitute "a clear violation" of UN resolution 1907 – which imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea in 2009.

The development of Eritrean relations with Saudi Arabia also appears to have worried Ethiopia, which wants to keep its erstwhile rival diplomatically isolated.

The role of Somalia and Somaliland is even murkier. Somalia made public that it has granted permission for GCC countries to use of its airspace, but it has not confirmed reports that Somali National Army soldiers are, like the Sudanese, deployed in Yemen as mercenaries. And while Somaliland has agreed to rent out port facilities at Berbera it is unknown whether this offer has been taken up. Meanwhile, Djibouti – an established Saudi ally and host of US, French and Japanese military bases – also appears to have permitted the use of its airport infrastructure for some coalition bombing missions, despite some recent tensions in relations.

The internationalisation of the Yemen war is proving a major windfall for the Horn of Africa, providing a source of ready cash and diplomatic support for governments in the region. Their involvement illustrates how regional conflagrations can drag in multiple actors with their own varied motivations. In the meantime, the Saudi-led alliance-building with countries in the Horn is likely to increase.

This article first appeared in The Africa Report.