Bloody Days in Sanaa

For Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, rising economic grievances pose a graver risk to his grip on power than al Qaeda ever did.


After more than 40 people were killed on March 18 in Sanaa, Yemen, where security forces and regime loyalists opened fire on protesters, the bonds that hold the delicate country together are increasingly fraying. For years, a combination of security and economic problems threatened the country, yet they were never able to topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government. But in recent weeks, grassroots frustrations have spurred disgruntled youth to challenge a regime that is clearly willing to use brute force to suppress their demands. And with neither side willing to back down, they are slowly inching Yemen toward the abyss.

In a society where violence is a preferred form of diplomacy, it should come as no surprise that Saleh unleashed his security forces on peaceful demonstrators. In the past, tribesmen in regions hostile to the regime killed soldiers who sought water from their wells, while clans seeking concessions from the government kidnapped foreign ambassadors to express their frustrations. In Yemen, politics is a blood sport.

Having witnessed the fall of three presidents — two of whom were assassinated — in the four years before he took power, Saleh has long been prepared for threats to his rule. To solidify his power, he created a military that is loyal to him rather than the state. Following the model of his long-time ally, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Saleh chose a senior staff based on family ties rather than merit. Almost all top military positions are held either by his kin or by members of his extended Sanhan tribe. They have as much to lose as Saleh does if he is deposed.

For years, many Yemen observers argued that the dilemmas the country faced — a secession movement in the south, a sectarian rebellion in the north, and a flourishing al Qaeda affiliate — threatened to implode the country. But as I argued shortly after the 2009 Christmas Day bombing, these challenges were unlikely to bring down the regime. Security unrest could never really cripple a land that has experienced political turmoil for a thousand years. Historical instability has rendered Yemenis largely inured to a level of violence that would be considered chaos in most countries.

Widespread societal frustrations, not regional grievances or jihadism, are at the root of the current protests. In a country where 65 percent of the population is under 25, Yemenis are understandably more interested in finding employment and weeding out corruption than in eliminating al Qaeda operatives in remote tribal regions. New cadres of college graduates have protested outside government offices in Ibb demanding jobs. Workers have crippled the port in Hudaydah, calling for the resignation of superiors who grew rich at the public’s expense.

The Yemeni people’s resolve has shaken the regime, and it is beginning to reveal its cracks. Senior provincial officials have quit their posts. Almost two dozen parliamentarians have resigned from the ruling General People’s Congress party. State electric workers have gone on strike in Taiz. Even the military has not been spared. In the northern province of Saada, where a rebellion has flared for the past seven years, soldiers mutinied against their senior commander. The regime is hemorrhaging defections.

But more worrisome for Saleh than these desertions is the ripple effect the unrest is causing among his chief backers — the tribes. For the first time in Saleh’s 32-year rule, most of the tribes in the two largest confederations oppose the president. And even among the clans that have remained loyal, such as Bayt Lahum and Banu Suraym, his support is far from secure. Saleh has been able to win over the chiefs with lavish financial promises and government posts, but the average tribesmen, who rarely benefit from this patronage, have turned against him.

The unrest has spread to Yemen’s financial sector as well. Foreigners are unable to withdraw hard currency from their bank accounts, and money-changers are refusing to sell U.S. dollars. Seeking to avert an economic crisis, Yemen asked its wealthy neighbors from the Gulf Cooperation Council last week for $6 billion in aid. But having earmarked $10 billion to shore up member nations Bahrain and Oman rocked by political unrest, the council may be reluctant to provide more funds to a country it often views as a poor stepsister.

Despite their accomplishments, Yemeni protesters have a long way to go before they can replicate the success of the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak was a pharaoh — he could ignore the opposition because he never had to consider their views. So when protests shook the pillars of his regime, he did not know the very people who could throw him a lifeline. But in Yemen, Saleh is little more than a tribal chieftain who has historically relied on shifting coalitions to prop up his rule.

More primus inter pares than despot, Saleh has always been deft at maneuvering between factions and parties. In fact, a number of opposition leaders currently jockeying to speak for the protesters sat in a unity government with Saleh during the early 1990s. If Saleh’s use of force was intended to frighten them to the negotiating table, his familiarity with these personalities and intimate knowledge of their demands may help him defuse the crisis.

Moreover, the Egyptian paradigm of "take the square and cripple the country until the president resigns" is ill-suited to a country like Yemen. Egypt is a hydraulic civilization where approximately a quarter of the population lives in the capital along the Nile River. So when a million protesters poured into downtown Cairo, they paralyzed the country. But in Yemen there are too many squares in too many towns and villages to capture. Fewer than 10 percent of Yemen’s 25 million people live in Sanaa. Almost 70 percent of the population lives in rural regions spread out across a vast area.

And though protesters have staged large demonstrations in cities such as Aden and Taiz, they have made less headway in the president’s tribal strongholds of Amran, Dhamar, and Khawlan. Holding these provinces is crucial to Saleh’s survival hopes.

Throughout his three decades in power, Saleh has successfully placated both friends and adversaries with his well-oiled patronage machine. But today’s protests are led by a young generation that refuses to be bought off. Having rejected the government’s lavish financial promises, the demonstrators are not likely to flinch in the face of force either. And in a country where conflicts are often decided by force, more blood may spill before the standoff is resolved.

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