Observers of Yemen are often asked why the revolution there has taken so long and why it has been so inconclusive. The more basic question — never asked, though inextricably tied to this — is why an uprising started in the first place.
When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and began to spread in the region, I did not think the conditions in Yemen were ripe for it. Indeed corruption, inequality, and the callous disregard for law were much worse in Yemen than any other country in the region. However, the conditions usually viewed as prerequisites for revolution — a large and mobile middle class, a strong civil society, high literacy rate, and internet penetration — are all non-existent. Yet the state does benefit from an historical accident, the adoption of a multi-party system in 1990 as part of the unity agreement between South and North Yemen. Twenty years of multi-party experience and the attendant mobilization skills of politicking made it possible for Yemeni activists to launch the revolution. Unfortunately, the absence of a broad middle class and a dynamic civil society has stunted the movement’s momentum. The revolution has gradually transformed into what is largely an elitist struggle for power.
In February, the revolution was in its purest form, an escalating popular protest not controlled by political parties or political factions. Activists demonstrated a degree of national unity rarely witnessed in Yemen. But the Joint Meeting of Parties (JMP), the main coalition of opposition groups, was reluctant to participate in the protests. As a result, youth in squares across Yemen cried out, "No partisanship and no parties. It is a youth revolution."
Junior partners in the JMP, especially the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), were more forthcoming in support of the revolutionary platform from the start. Meanwhile, the Islamic party Islah, the main opposition faction, which until recently had an alliance with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hesitant to commit until the revolution gathered pace. They had the most to lose by openly challenging the regime. Islah eventually joined the youth in full force and successfully maneuvered to control the organizing committee of Al-Taghyeer (Change) Square in Sana’a and was instrumental in setting up many provincial protest squares. It’s worth noting that the exception to Islah dominance played out in al-Hurreyah (freedom) Square in Taiz, Yemen’s third city, which came to be referred to as the heart of the revolution.
From then on, the slogans and the rhetoric of the protestors came to represent the voice of the JMP rather than the youth. A notable example of this shift in rhetoric is the attacks on the General People’s Congress (GPC), the nominal ruling party which lacks hard power and which the masses do not perceive as a primary adversary of the revolution. Islah’s disparagement of the GPC is seen as a self-serving tactic, a ploy which they hope would lead to disbanding the GPC and thus giving Islah a real chance of gaining a majority in post-revolution elections.
The situation transformed in March after the massacre at al-Karamah where snipers shot dead 54 unarmed youth and injured many more. That horrific event led to mass defections within the regime, the military, the bureaucracy, and the ruling party.
General Ali Mohsin, Shaykh Sadeq al-Ahmar, and Sheikh Abdul-Majid Al Zindani were the most notable converts to the revolution. Mohsin, the second-most powerful person in Yemen, was Saleh’s closest ally. As Saleh succeeded in concentrating power around him and his closest relatives, Mohsin was sidelined and, in turn, became Saleh’s greatest competitor. Al-Ahmar inherited the powerful position of the Paramount Sheikh of Hashid Tribal Confederacy from his father, the legendary Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, whose approval of Saleh was sought by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia before it agreed to install Saleh as president in 1978. Moreover, Zindani is the most popular and best-known Yemeni hard-line cleric with links to Osama Bin Laden. A leader of Islah, he was Saleh’s ally against Islah moderate leadership in the past few years.
All three regime insiders — Mohsin, al-Ahmar, and Zindani — are publically perceived as equal partners with Saleh in the regime’s past misdeeds. They lost some of their privilege in the past few years as Saleh and his family sought to monopolize power, but continued to enjoy access and privilege that even the vice president and prime minister couldn’t dream of. Mohsin’s forces, the First Armored Division, began to provide military protection to the Sana’a protest square while at the same time exercising excessive police control of the square. Islah activists and radical students of Zindani’s Al Iman University also lent hand to this crackdown. Many independent protesters, seeing their revolution being hijacked by the original tripod of regime power — the military, the tribe, and politicized Islam — went home in resignation.
The introduction of these figures into the revolutionary camp polarized the public and gave the Saleh regime an opportunity to regain some popular support. Saleh moved from a defensive to an offensive posture. Hence, Saleh’s supporters chanted, "No Mohsin; No Hamid (al-Ahmar)." At that point, the revolution appeared so adrift that many concluded that it was no longer a revolution; it became just another episode in the regime’s perpetual factional competition and power struggle.
After the initial thuggish response, and the murder of more than 200 innocent protesters, the regime developed two comprehensive strategies. The first was to maneuver and stall in the hope of outlasting the revolutionary fervor so that Saleh can stay in power until the end of the presidential term, 2013 — even if he has to give up much of his presidential authority to his vice president. The second strategy — developed at the negotiation table by regime moderate negotiators, their JMP counterparts, and international mediators — was a peaceful and orderly transfer of power, a political transformation that would lead to a fully decentralized parliamentary system.
Most of the GPC and the general public support such a transition, originally expressed in the famous Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, later elaborated upon by U.N. mediator Jamal Bin Omar. The GCC Initiative, signed by the JMP and GPC, stipulated the transfer of Saleh’s executive power to the vice president, who would then oversee the formation of a government of national unity; the opposition would hold the prime-ministerial post and half the cabinet portfolios. In return for giving up power, Saleh and all his associates would be granted immunity from prosecution. But at the very last moment Saleh refused to sign it.
Both of these strategies have partially succeeded. While outlasting the revolution is an unreasonable expectation, the regime is now in a stronger position than it was just a few months ago. In contrast, the revolutionary movement has weakened due to the opposition’s miscalculations, elites’ hijacking of the revolution, and the regime’s disingenuous plan to subject the people to such hardship that "stability" is valued at any cost. The second strategy is now at the final crossroads.
After months of false promises, Saleh has signed a limited delegation of power to his vice president. But will the process of implementing the initiative move forward? We are awaiting JMP’s response. If they agree, they will find the vice president and most of the GPC to be as anxious to complete the transfer of power as they are. While this arrangement falls short of the opposition’s expectations, the two sides can capitalize on the constitutional authority of the vice president to overcome Saleh’s recalcitrance and proceed with the business of forming a government of national unity. In such an outcome, the power dynamic would change and produce a more powerful coalition in favor of a peaceful transfer of power. If that does not happen, though, there is nothing on the horizon that would stand in the way of a military confrontation that could — if not checked by the international community — deteriorate into civil war.
As the politicians haggle over the transfer of power, the youth seem to be set up for a bitter disappointment. While they advocate a new Yemen of freedom, democracy, equality, and equal opportunity, they find themselves in alliance with some of the shadiest characters of the old regime. Some of the youth leaders now recognize that they need to re-examine their alliances and identify those on the other side who share those democratic ideals. As the opposition is leaning toward accepting Saleh’s latest initiative, many of the youth now realize that they have more in common with the GPC rank-and-file than they do with some of their current allies. Once Saleh leaves office, the youth can expand the democratic camp into the GPC popular base and improve the chances of having a more democratic future.
Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani is a Yemeni political analyst and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement.