"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Will he stay or will he go?

Obviously, the biggest question in Yemen right now is: will the protests work?   Will Ali Abdullah Salih, who so recently seemed to be ensuring the permanent continuation of his regime, go the way of Tunisia?  These are heady times in Yemen, and I don't think it is wise in such a fluid situation to make predictions.  So, a couple of thoughts.

1) Salih has shown himself in the past to be a master of manipulating discontent in order to deflect blame.  But I think this time he is reacting in a pretty clumsy and transparent matter.  The arrest of Tawkul Kamran, and her release, seemed pretty ham-handed.  Greg calls it a kidnapping, which shows again why he is the best.   Salih was playing by ancient rules, hoping an arrest could force negotiations.  He seemed to not understand they way she could easily turn into a martyr rather than a bargaining chip.

2) Salih has intoned several times that "Yemen is not Tunisia", probably a way of saying that Yemenis are more peaceful and won't overturn a leader outside of the ballot box, a strange take on history.  In doing this, he is trying to appeal to a sense of justice.  This is clever, but also a little blind- Tunisia is an inspiration, not a cautionary example (it could be the latter, depending on how things turn out, but revolutionary times are heady ones, and changing the present is more important than a potential messy future).

3) But then again, Yemen is not Tunisia.  Yemen doesn't have the same middle class or educational system of Tunisia (relatively speaking).   These are key ingredients in a successful revolution, or at least one that won't be followed by blood and the domination of a strongman.  

4) Greg also pointed this out, in mentioning that Salih has increased the pay for civil servants.  "Although one has to ask: if the important thing in Yemen is - as so many including myself believe - jobs, then how will raising the salaries of those with jobs satisfy those with no jobs?"  It won't, but I humbly don't think that is the point.  It isn't about appeasing the protestors.  As much as we like to believe that a concerted wave of protests can alone topple the government, it doesn't work that way.  The single key ingredient is the loyalty of the security forces.  These salary raises are a way of trying to buy that loyalty- indeed, he is raising the pay of the forces around $23 a month- not insignificant.

This will bring up the big question, assuming the protests continue (a big, but reasonable assumption): how much loyalty will this buy?  Money is important, but there will come a time when Salih might ask his men to really open fire on kids in the street.  The world has turned on whether or not soldiers can do this- one commander who refuses is enough to change everything.  And that is the most unpredictable factor in the world.   There are a million models and even more hypothesis about how this can go, but in the end Salih's survival will come down to the conscience of people whose names we might never learn.


  1. This is an excellent analysis, Brian. The fact that you and Greg are both taking these developments so seriously should tell the rest of us Yemen-watchers something. But one thing hangs me up: Yemeni security forces have proved willing to fire on protesters in the South, and obviously the military and counter-terror units have had very little problem (with some exceptions) killing civilians in the far north. We also have the example of 1994, when Salih's Islamist proxy forces sacked Aden, to demonstrate Salih's adeptness at turning factions and regions against one another to his own benefit.
    Do you think the current wave of protests is intrinsically different from those that have been going on for the past couple of years? Or is the primary difference one of scope and size?

  2. Hi Will- that's a great point. There is no real good reason to think that this will be different, but it doesn't mean it won't be. How's that for a weasel statement? I suppose a difference might be indoctrination- the southerners are trying to break up the country and the Houthis are primitive monarchists- yeah, some civilians are getting killed, but they shouldn't be there anyway, right? It might be different in San'a, with kids. That might be wishful thinking, though, but I do think the fact that it is in the capital might make a difference.

    I don't think it is scope and size, but the meaning behind these protests that makes it different. It isn't about policy, like when you have subsidy riots, but about the very nature of the government. Although they are very different, this is the same emotive core that you have in the north and south (and, I would argue, AQAP, though I am not linking them at all, of course). Having this in San'a makes it intrinsically different- at some point, how can the entire state be an enemy of the state?

  3. I think you could be right, but this raises a question: the protests are in San'a, but are they of San'a? A sizable portion of the university population comes from elsewhere, especially Ta'iz (where there is and long has been plenty of anti-government animosity). It's quite possible that Salih can rhetorically "other" these treasonous students just as he does the Zaydi sadah (not that he invented anti-sayyid racism, but you get the idea). As you point out above, Yemen doesn't have Tunisia's educated middle class. If "Huthis"--many of whose families have been a part of the social fabric of the rural highlands for centuries--can be transformed in the state's propaganda into foreign agents, how hard could it be to turn poor, simple soldiers against uppity, westernized university brats?

    That said, I think your final point above is a very good one, and the state can't repress everyone all at once. But I still see a very strong status quo in San'a. There may be hundreds rallying with Tawakul Karman, but there are hundreds of thousands minding their shops, shopping in the markets, cooking bread, driving cabs, going to school, and, of course, unemployed, who still have no interest in revolution. In Egypt today there were tens of thousands, reportedly, demonstrating in the streets, and they will almost certainly fail. Odds are President Salih--just like Mubarak--will continue to manage dissent successfully, at least for a few more years.