Cairo It Ain’t

Pro-democracy protesters have started something big in Yemen. But are they going to like how it ends?


SANAA, Yemen—The night that two anti-government demonstrators were shot dead by supporters of the Yemeni regime amid the protests and counterprotests roiling Yemen’s dusty capital city, I visited the scene of the crime: a blocked-off T-shaped intersection in front of the metal gates of Sanaa University. The intersection has been ground zero over the past 13 days for the anti-government protesters who have risen up against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the strongman who has ruled Yemen for more than three decades. His effigy swings from a lamppost above the protesters’ multicolored tents.

When I arrived at the university late on Feb. 22, I found an unusual cross section of Yemen’s fragmented society. Young educated Yemenis were standing shoulder to shoulder with bearded religious leaders, T-shirt-clad teenagers, and tribesmen from Yemen’s rural north. A 20-year-old hipster — even Yemen has a few of them — held hands in prayer with a white-cloaked tribesman, a foot-long dagger slung across his slender waist. The diversity within the protests is striking; it’s also perhaps the single most important indicator of whether there will be a revolution in Yemen.

Yemen is not Egypt. Hosni Mubarak presided over a mostly stable country with working government institutions, a functioning if lagging economy, and a robust civil society with a coherent vision of what a democratic post-Mubarak Egypt might look like. Yemen has none of those things. For all the hundreds of millions of dollars‘ worth of military aid Saleh’s government has received from the United States, the Yemeni president exercises real control over only about half of his country, and three-quarters of its people. Large swaths of the restive south, which was a separate country until 21 years ago, are effectively no-go zones for his government, as are much of the eastern tribal lands and the mountainous north, where Houthi rebels have battled the government for the last six years.

Yemen’s economy consists of little more than the country’s oil exports, which are dwindling, and unemployment hovers around 35 percent. Terrorist organizations like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has masterminded several attempted attacks on American soil from its base in Yemen, operate here with near impunity. And average Yemenis’ loyalties are divided not just among political factions but also among the intricate strata of tribal affiliations that have been the principal fabric of the country’s society for centuries. A revolution in Yemen stands a better chance of producing an all-out civil war of the sort the country has endured regularly throughout its history than it does of creating anything resembling a stable democracy.

Saleh has stayed in office as long as he has largely because he has learned better than anyone else how to navigate this vastly complex political and social landscape: He has been adept at figuring out whom to court, whom to buy off, and whom to kill to hold onto power. He has no shortage of enemies, but for any one of them to consolidate a serious opposition would have been nearly impossible. When protests first materialized in early February, Saleh announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2013, but many in Sanaa don’t believe him — they say if the president manages to hang on to office that long, through the current bout of restiveness, he’ll only be more confident in his ruling abilities than he is now.

But after Saleh’s supporters fired Kalashnikovs on anti-government demonstrations in Sanaa on Feb. 19 and then again on Feb. 22, killing two and wounding dozens, the unthinkable is suddenly thinkable. The attacks in the capital — while relatively tame compared with violence elsewhere, which has claimed at least 10 more lives — seem to have struck a chord, potentially catalyzing cooperation between Yemen’s wildly disparate anti-government factions. University students, illiterate tribesmen, Houthi rebels, southern separatists, socialists, and Islamists, who have little in common aside from a searing hatred for Saleh, now seem willing to collaborate, at least in the short term. That unlikely coalition may be the only thing that could end his 32-year reign. The million-dollar question, however, is what would follow.

On the night of Feb. 24, for the first time, the number of protesters in front of Sanaa University reached roughly 10,000 — four times the size of previous protests — partially because tribal members came out in force. Demonstrators from the far ends of the Yemeni social spectrum articulated their complaints in nearly the exact same words. “This is not freedom, when your government kills you,” Nasser Saber, a tribesman from Marib, a rugged eastern province, told me. “Must we choose,” a doctor from Sanaa asked, “between death and freedom?”

Earlier this month, both separatist leaders in Yemen’s south, who have called for secession from Yemen for more than 15 years, and Houthi rebels in Yemen’s north, who have fought on-again, off-again wars with Saleh’s government since 2004, pledged their support for anti-Saleh protesters on the streets of Yemen’s cities. Since then, separatist leaders have staged a series of protests in the southern provinces and in the port city of Aden, often marching alongside student activists, according to local reports. On Feb. 21, Houthi leaders held mass demonstrations in Yemen’s northern provinces, according to the group’s press release. “We are marching as a statement of solidarity … and in praise of the students and civil society organizations who initiated this revolution against tyranny,” the statement said.

Within the small sphere of Yemeni national politics, opposition parties, including the socialists, Nasserites, and the powerful Islamic Brotherhood, have long joined under an umbrella coalition, the Joint Meetings Party (JMP). This week, the JMP announced its support for the protesters as well. “It is true that we must all work together,” said Mohammed Qahtan, a leading member of al-Islah, Yemen’s Islamic Brotherhood party, and an outspoken member of the JMP. “We cannot succeed if we are going in different directions.”

The ultimate wild card in Yemeni politics, as always, is what the country’s tribes — which exercise an extraordinary amount of political influence, especially in Yemen’s north — will do. In the past, Saleh, a tribesman himself, has managed to control many of the tribes by plying their leaders with money, cars, and favors. But as his government’s coffers have dried up, he has been unable to keep his historically fickle — and well-armed — base happy.

Local newspapers say that Saleh is now scrambling to retain allegiances even within his own tribal group after Hamid al-Ahmar, whose powerful family heads the Hashid confederation, the largest and most influential tribal alliance in Yemen, publicly announced his support for the anti-Saleh protesters. Both Saleh and Ahmar have spent the last several weeks meeting with tribal leaders on separate occasions, jockeying for their capricious loyalties. Saleh, whose own tribe falls within the Hashid confederation, also hosted a rally this week in Sanaa for tribal leaders and their people.

Government officials have dismissed the suggestion that tribesmen — traditionally Saleh’s most loyal base — would join anti-government protesters en masse. For now, at least, there is truth to this: While perhaps a few thousand tribesmen joined the anti-Saleh demonstrations Feb. 24, the majority of those tribesmen who have come to Sanaa for the demonstrations are still across town in the pro-Saleh camps.

Saleh himself has also actively downplayed the possibility of cooperation between his enemies, reminding the media at a press conference Feb. 21 that Yemen is a country of 24 million people and that demonstrations in Sanaa have topped out in the several thousands. “It’s an infection that came from Tunis to Egypt and other countries,” he said. “It’s like influenza.”

And Saleh hasn’t held together one of the world’s most fractious countries for three decades by accident. The latest round of upheavals may test his virtuoso deal-making skills, but they won’t necessarily defeat them. It’s possible to envision an outcome in which the president quietly brokers a compromise with tribal leaders and the JMP, keeping them at bay until the 2013 election with cash and promises of reform. That would leave only the students and other pro-democracy protesters in the streets outside Sanaa University — at most a few thousand people. They would be a nuisance for Saleh, but would hardly constitute a revolution.

But it’s equally possible to imagine things lurching violently in the opposite direction: some tribes joining up with Saleh’s many enemies, while others side with the embattled president, thrusting this already fragile country into an all-out civil war. And even if the tribes stick together — and they usually don’t — to force the president out of office, Yemen is still not in the clear. With no obvious leader standing atop this tangled mess of contradictory alliances, the tribes — not to mention the Houthis and southern separatists — might very well turn on one another in a scramble to fill the power vacuum. Some leaders, like Ahmar, say that’s too dire a prediction — but in Yemen, it’s hardly an implausible one.

Neither of these most likely outcomes, however, is anything like what the students and other members of Sanaa’s fledgling civil society envisioned when they brought the Arab revolt to Yemen. “We do not want to have a revolution so our new government will be controlled by tribal alliances and corruption,” Adel al-Surabi, a young protest leader, told me. “We want a revolution so we can have a true democracy. At least for now, I don’t see that happening.”

Haley Sweetland Edwards is a writer living in Tbilisi.