The Middle East Channel

Opposition to Yemen’s opposition

After six months of ongoing peaceful protests, a fracturing of the armed forces, and ongoing violence in numerous parts of the country, Yemenis face increasingly dire conditions each day. And yet they keep showing up. While non-democratic (nay, anti-democratic) neighbors fitfully engage in mediation efforts while also giving refuge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

After six months of ongoing peaceful protests, a fracturing of the armed forces, and ongoing violence in numerous parts of the country, Yemenis face increasingly dire conditions each day. And yet they keep showing up. While non-democratic (nay, anti-democratic) neighbors fitfully engage in mediation efforts while also giving refuge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. continues to interpret the crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. Concerned about the risk of an emboldened al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the U.S. has offered tepid support for the aspirations of the country’s majority, pinned its hopes on an atavistic autocrat, and opted to increase controversial drone attacks in some of the most unstable parts of the country. 

This strategy is mistaken. It presupposes a narrow understanding of U.S. interests centered on counterterrorism, which I and others have argued against elsewhere. But it also assumes that working against the revolutionary aspirations of millions of Yemenis is, in fact, the best way to counter the threat of AQAP. Supporting the development of a democratically-constituted Yemen and offering support to its leaders as they build legitimate state institutions makes more sense. This Friday, the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, which is advocating for Saleh’s immediate transfer of powers and the formation of a transitional council, has issued a call for a march in pursuit of a "Civil State." Yemenis from across ideological, occupational, generational, and class lines will gather around the country to demand a state accountable to its rights-bearing citizens. It will be the twenty-fifth Friday on which they have done so, camped out in the squares for the weeks in between.

Opportunistic, "spontaneous," and organized oppositions

It has been widely observed that Yemen’s opposition movement is in fact a very wide tent, featuring multiple groups with shared (and some not-so-shared) visions of Yemen’s ideal political future. The six-month standoff between the opposition and the regime has by now also produced considerable de facto devolution of authority in this highly regionally-divided and socially stratified country. But the emphasis on the different factions of the opposition has been too frequently inverted in media accounts, placing undue (and historically short-sighted) stress on those groups engaged in armed conflict with elements of the Yemeni armed forces loyal to President Saleh and his family.

Attention has focused mainly on the "opportunistic opposition" composed of various tribal leaders (especially the Ahmar brothers), military figures (notably Ali Muhsin and his First Armored Division) and insurgents (including the Huthis in the North and an array of Southern secessionists, usually unnamed). What these groups have in common is that they are willing to use force, and that they are "latecomers" to the movement for political change. All that we know of their substantive politics is that they would like a piece of the leadership pie in a post-revolutionary Yemen. Some, undoubtedly, have larger appetites than others. All of this is certainly important, and it means that they are relevant to a political solution, but it does not mean that they are central to it. For this, we ought to look more closely at the other two sources of political opposition.

In contrast to these latecomers, who mainly joined opposition protesters after the March 18 massacre, the leaders of the "Change Revolution" took cues from their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts and mobilized an absolutely unprecedented, nonviolent opposition movement that has stretched across the country. Beginning in earnest in February, protesters issued a critique of both the regime and of the ineffective opposition parties that abetted Saleh. Gradually, the hundreds of semi-organized groups camped out in "Change Squares" across Yemen’s major cities have come to articulate a more specific set of demands. Still, the complete removal Saleh, his immediate family, and the remnants of his political regime remain at the top of the list.

Yet it is misleading to call this a "youth" revolution, or to assume that its February origins were sui generis. The ages and social positions of its leaders vary tremendously, and many leaders of this "spontaneous" opposition have their roots in the partisan politics of the ideological opposition. They are called "youth" in part because of their (relative) age, but also because the common thread in their organizing is one of hope for the future, making youth a logical rhetorical motif. It is a metaphorical youth, perhaps, but its aspirations are unquestionably forward-looking.

The massive and utterly unprecedented protests organized by these groups are astounding, in their scope, duration, and peacefulness. But the biggest misperception about the Yemeni revolution is that it began with the protests of more or less spontaneously organized youth.

For over a decade, the organized political opposition has sought to substantially reform the political regime in Yemen and to replace Saleh through legal and non-violent mechanisms. This opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), is itself a cross-ideological umbrella of religious parties, socialists, and other leftist nationalists. Indeed, it is so ideologically diverse that issues of procedural and institutional reform have, for a long time, been all that the groups can agree to pursue in common. The Youth revolutionaries’ critique of the JMP has centered on its gradual and incremental approach, and its perceived neglect of grassroots. Alienated over time from constituencies outside of Sana’a, the JMP had difficulty articulating a common position on the Huthi crisis, all but missed the emergence of the Southern movement, and was able to carve out only minimal concessions from an encroaching regime. In other words, until a mobilizing push came from Cairo and Tunis and they began to organize (reformist, but not revolutionary) protests of their own in January, the JMP appeared to be teetering on obsolescence.

So why should we care about JMP? For two reasons: first, because the JMP and the "youth" leaders are not entirely discrete categories and there has been a great deal of cooperation, mutual reinforcement, and ideological co-articulation across this porous border; second, because revolutions beget new institutions. If Yemen’s revolution succeeds, it will be JMP leaders who will be best able to navigate (and, they hope, craft) whatever new institutions take shape in Yemen. The protesters themselves seem to appreciate this.  As one activist complained recently, "Our problem now is not with [Saleh], but with the JMP." Some of the youth leaders complain that the JMP is "hijacking" the revolution by taking control of Sana’a’s Change Square in cooperation with Ali Muhsin’s forces, and marches of "Independent Youth" are being organized against the member parties. At the same time, members of the Yemeni Socialist Party and other leftists have now also begun to raise the specter of an Islamist takeover within the JMP itself, as well as in the squares.  But neither accusation seems entirely fair to the historic role of the JMP, or of Islamists within the alliance.

What about the Islamists?

As in Egypt and elsewhere, at least some of the U.S. ambivalence toward the revolution in Yemen relates to the possibility (or probability) of substantial Islamist participation in a post-revolutionary democratic regime. But rather than ask "what if" Islamists were allowed to legally participate, we ought to ask how Islamists have functioned to date.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen has enjoyed a much higher degree of political competitiveness over the past two decades. Islamists have been organized and integrated into the existing regime. During the 1990s, they even participated briefly in a power-sharing Presidential Council and held several cabinet portfolios. 

Over the past decade, however, as the Saleh regime blurred the boundary between the ruling party and state institutions to deepen its advantages, the electoral system has become less competitive and press more openly suppressed. Meanwhile, the Islamist Islah party, Yemen’s second largest party since the 1993 elections, moved into the opposition. Since its nascent stages in 2002,  the Joint Meeting Parties  has served as an increasingly institutionalized vehicle for coordination between Islah, their former rivals, the Yemeni Socialist party, and a handful of smaller parties.

So what does the experience building and sustaining the JMP tell us about Islah and the likely future of Islamism in a post-revolutionary Yemen? First, cross-ideological cooperation has tended to cohere around "non-controversial" issues of procedural democratic reform. The issues that have cemented the alliance have been questions of transparency, anti-corruption, devolution, electoral reform, etc., and there is a generation of Islamists conversant in the idioms of and committed to building a democratic regime. The most divisive issues have been related to issues of gender equality and, to some extent, sectarian and regional concerns. But even on these thornier questions, the alliance has not broken, even when it has been bent by disagreement.

By far the most important lesson from the decade of JMP coordination, however, has come from developments within member parties. While deep fissures exist within both the Islamist Islah party and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), the process of building and sustaining the alliance bolstered the internal position of moderates within both parties and isolated ideological extremists. As the Southern Movement gained ground, secessionists did not advance to leadership in the YSP. And in the 2007 internal Islah elections, a slate of young activists with deep commitments to the JMP were voted to the party’s internal governing council. It’s worth noting that 13 women, including current protest leader Tawakkol Karman, were elected, despite the party’s unwillingness to field a female candidate in national elections. The popularity of these younger JMP activists within Islah was an indictment of more radical leaders, like Shaykh al-Zindani, who was voted out of his leadership position and who had publicly opposed this faction, especially the women. Many activists, both inside and out of the party, credited the internal shakeup to the younger cadre’s role in mobilizing cross-ideological support for political reform — of building the antecedents of the revolution.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many of this younger cadre of activists have been central to the peaceful, democratic revolutionary movement, and have provided a critical link across the porous border between the JMP and the "youth." Islamists in a democratically-constituted Yemen will be socially conservative on some issues, but they will be democrats.  U.S. policy, favoring a myopic focus on AQAP, has bypassed the story of these Islamists for too long.

U.S. interests in Yemen

Any effort to "get Yemen right" is likely to get lost in the noise, but there are plenty of ways to get Yemen wrong. Unfortunately, viewing the country largely (if not exclusively) through the lens of counterterrorism has been the dominant approach adopted over the past decade and strengthened considerably under the Obama administration. Using John Brennen, counterterrorism advisor and former CIA station chief in Riyadh, as the primary public face of U.S. policy in Yemen communicates this approach — as does his meeting with President Saleh in Saudi Arabia. Words of tepid support from U.S. diplomats regarding political transition show that the Washington still pins considerable hopes on the idea that Saleh (or his successor) might still serve as a "good czar" in Yemen, ruling the country with a firm hand in order to limit the spread of AQAP or its ability to stage an attack on the U.S. or its allies, notably Saudi Arabia.

But the status-quo strategy has substantively increased risk to U.S. strategic interests and stands to continue to do so. Saleh has been, at best, an inconsistent ally. He has abetted the rise of AQAP, cooperated fitfully with counterterrorism policies while building ties with some advocates of violence, and used aid earmarked for counterterrorism assistance to squash his domestic critics, including many in the JMP. His unwillingness to yield to popular pressure for reform (even before the current crisis) has increased the chaos and undermined the legitimacy of those Yemeni institutions that will be needed for future counterterrorism cooperation.

There is no good reason not to support the protesters’ demands for a transitional council in Yemen. Supporting a new regime and, in time, encouraging that regime as it rebuilds the institutional legitimacy that has been destroyed or prevented by decades of mismanagement can help to produce the good will necessary for long-term cooperation in counterterrorism. The alternative — support for an aging and injured autocrat and/or his designated successors, plus a strategy of drone strikes that violate Yemeni sovereignty with impunity — will lead to a wellspring of anti-American sentiment. With good cause.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an assistant professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, where she is coordinator of the Middle Eastern Studies Program. She is a member of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies and conducted fieldwork in Yemen during 2004-2006 and 2008-09.

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