"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

CNAS on Yemen

At Abu Muquwama, Andrew Exum asked CNAS intern Dana Stuster for some thoughts on Yemen, with good results (he was also nice enough to mention this blog).  The whole thing is worth a read, but I am going to past a paragraph that I both agree and disagree with.

To begin with, Yemen is not on the cusp of a revolution. It’s easy to get caught up in the heady events in Tunisia and Egypt, but Yemen just does not have the socio-economic preconditions for the types of revolts seen in the past two weeks. Even if something were to take hold, the opposition movement in Yemen is incredibly fragmented. It’s unclear just what the mix of ideologies has been in the protests in Yemen these last few weeks, but even if the movement could depose Salih, there’s no clear outcome. If anything follows, it will begin with a motley assortment of groups jockeying for influence – a volatile cocktail of religious and political factions. In all likelihood, though, they won’t get that far.

I completely agree that Yemen doesn't have the same "socio-economic preconditions" of Tunisia and even Egypt- at least the positive preconditions.  It is way advanced at poverty.  And so the conclusion, that we won't have a liberal revolution is very likely.  Or, more precisely, the liberal part will only be part of the revolution. 

To me, Yemen is not on the cusp of a revolution because it is already in one- several, actually.  The Southern Movement is clearly one, and I consider both the Houthi movement and even AQAP to be revolutions as well.  I have no idea if this is outside the norm, but I haven't heard it phrased that way.  I think all three movements are essentially revolutions against the idea of a unified, centrally-controlled state. They are not tied in any real sense- see the AQAP declaration of war against the Houthis, which I really need to address in its own post, because it is pretty mind-blowing- but they have the same emotional underpinning, which is that this particular moment in political history is temporary.  As Stuster says at the end of his post, "The tribes are a constant in Yemen; the government, after a 30-some year hiatus, is about to be a lot less so."  

This is why I think the movement which has been brewing all month, and which might really explode into force on Thursday, is so interesting: it is not the same kind of rebellion.  It seems to want a state, just a decent honest one in which people are given a chance to actually live their lives without oppression or the crushing chains of poverty.   It is most similar to the Southern Movement, which is also largely secular and liberal, but it isn't trying to tear the country apart. 

This is why I think we need to be behind it.  President Salih has very few friends left, and while he might be able to stay in power, it will be even more degraded and illusory than before.  And since our biggest fear is a collapsed Yemen, it is important to throw our weight behind the one thing that might keep it from implosion.  Stuster is absolutely right that on the streets there will be a hodge-podge of movements without a center, but there does need to be a push to find one, even a symbolic one that can kind of hold things together.  I am not under the illusion that a replacement for Salih will fix everything, because in some ways he is just the frontman for a system that goes against Yemeni history.   I've said before that we do need to devolve the center, because it is an uncomfortable graft on older forms of rule.  But a new leader, even a transitional one, might be able to ease tensions with the north and the south (unless it is Brig. General Ali Mushin al-Ahmar, who is seen by all competing groups as having blood-stained hands).  

I realize this is all somewhat incoherent, but that is because the situation is so volatile and unpredictable and shifting.  Basically, I think that this movement has a chance at holding the country together, even in a very fragile way, and I don't think Salih has that ability anymore.  The chances of success are small, but the chances of success in Yemen have always been small, even non-existent.  February 3rd gives us- and more importantly, Yemenis- a crack.  

Anyway, read the whole piece I linked to.  Even if- especially if- I disagree with a few things, it is well worth the read.  

(NOTE: Edited so pronouns reflect actual gender of author.  I always guess wrong.  Sorry, Dana)


  1. Brian,
    Great post, as always.

    To me, the key question is the makeup of this protest movement: what political parties, ideological movements and other groups in Yemeni society will participate? Thursday’s “Day of Rage” is organized by the JMP opposition coalition, which lacks credibility as well. The key member of the coalition, Islah, benefits from the same corrupt patronage system as the ruling party, even if it has in distanced itself from Salih in recent years.

    The challenge, therefore, is for these protests to decentralize (like Yemen as a whole) and become more representative and reflective of broader grievances. If it’s a JMP revolution, I don’t see any traction. Similarly, I can’t envision an effective and smooth transitional government led by the JMP. Certainly, many Yemenis (those sympathetic to the Huthis and Southern Movement being two) would see it as a continuation – albeit an eased one – of the Salih-Sanhan regime.

    What do you think?

    Regardless, your key point is that Salih has no chance to hold Yemen together, the U.S. needs to begin looking – and supporting – elsewhere. That’s huge.

  2. James- very good call about JMP's credibility. I kind of have the feeling that this will quickly overwhelm and leave in the dust JMP, that it will look more like the unformed and centerless Egyptian protests- and I mean that in a good way.

    But you are certainly right about the continuation of the "Salih-Sanhan regime" (a nice phrase that I just might have to steal). You could make the argument that the Socialists would have some traction in the South, but they are not secessionists, of course. The tie between Islah and the Socialists is, in a way, inspiring, but in the effort to please everyone they might not be able to convince anyone.

  3. Ugh. Rereading this post I realize I used "this is why I think..." in two straight paragraphs. Terrible writing. Sorry, guys.

  4. Brian,

    I'm glad you enjoyed my post over at Abu Muqawama. I think we agree on most things here, including that the Houthis and the Southern Mobility Movement constitute revolutions of some sort, though I'd be reticent to lump AQAP in with them. The difference from the current protests is that the Houthis and SMM have been unable to mobilize a national movement that could destabilize the central government. The current protests seem to have a better chance of that, if only by their proximity, but I think the appearance of even this being a national movement is deceptive. A protest in Sanaa means something very different than a protest in Ta'iz or Aden or Saada. Will it be possible for some sort of united front to merge out of these instead of all these different groups just making a lot of noise? I don't think the events in Yemen will oust Salih in the near term, but the United States needs to start planning for a post-Salih Yemen.

    I genuinely hope that the United States can maintain a relationship with whatever comes next, and I hope it will be a democratic government that emerges. I doubt that the U.S. has the standing in Yemen to be trusted with helping to facilitate a transition to a democratic government, but I’d like the U.S. to extend an olive branch to whoever fills the executive office next. Realistically, though, I just don’t see any of the contenders being conciliatory to the United States. I hope that Washington can maintain even tenuous ties to Sanaa, but I think the groundwork needs to be laid now for an expanded and alternative relationship with Yemen.

    Thanks for posting this up and responding. One last footnote, I’m one of those rare guy-Danas that go around and confuse everyone. Sorry to throw a wrench in all your pronouns.

    (John) Dana Stuster

  5. Dana- Thanks for the note, and sorry about messing up the name. I think your last point about the "alternative relationship with Yemen" is crucially important- and you made this point in the article as well. Extending our contacts to other centers of power. We haven't shown any ability to do this particularly well in the past, but I do think we need to start. I'd be interested if you or any other readers have an idea about how this could be done, and what form it would take.

  6. The USG-sponsored NDI has been working with Yemeni parliamentarians for quite some time now. It played a key role in the making of JMP, a claim on their website and something I've personally heard from NDI's head in Yemen, Leslie Campbell.

    From a conversation with Mr. Campbell, it doesn't seem that Yemeni parliamentarians in the opposition are particularly anti-American. They are eager to work with the NDI and benefit from its programs. I also hold the opinion that despite their rhetoric, Islamists willing to participate in the electoral process (such as Muslim Brothers and others who make up Islah) will cooperate even with the US if it means advancing goals of bringing progress and reform to their countries. Of course, there is not much evidence in support of this-other than the AKP in Turkey-but we haven't exactly allowed Islamists to participate, so there is no evidence really that disproves this. I don't think Hamas fits here because that is a different case.

    I agree that the JMP is fragmented and lacks credibility in Yemen. However, it seems that we're assuming that their ascension to power (albeit highly unlikely) means an anti-American administration. I just would like to challenge this assumption because my little knowledge suggests that it isn't necessarily the case.

    Given the QDDR's emphasis on development aid for advancing our foreign policy goals, which puts USAID (which funds NDI) in an integral position, do you think that we can maybe pursue this avenue in Yemen and achieve results? I'm skeptical on the first part simply given our history of employing the military first rather than civilian diplomacy/development aid (which we all know Yemen is need of and could greatly benefit from), but would like to hear what others have to say.

    Sorry if the above is incoherent. It's almost 2 am over here and I've been translating Arabic texts for the past 2.5 hours.


  7. Brian,

    I think if the U.S. stands a chance of fostering a stable relationship with Yemen, one that will be able to survive a potentially chilly relationship with the Sanaa government, its best opportunity is trying to connect to the tribes. What I'd like to see - and this cuts to the heart of what you said, Muhsin - is a large commitment by the U.S. State Department to win goodwill in rural areas. NDI will have an essential role to play. I'd like to see them facilitate full-government talks about the direction of Yemen and help facilitate the transition from Salih. I know this has been difficult to arrange in the past, but placed in the new context of Salih (if we take him at his word) stepping down, there's a very important 2 year window to plan a true, democratic election. It’s also an opportunity for the U.S. to prove its worth to all the actors in Yemen. (I take your point about the JMP, but it’s hard to take them as a group. They are a coalition out of necessity and I question the intentions of Islah, which is the most powerful element in the group. I think they would have a much different perspective on the U.S. if only they could find a better option to support conciliatory talks with the GPC.)
    Development efforts will need to step up in areas outside the capital. Too much aid money is getting skimmed off the top in Sanaa that isn't getting to crucial regions. Unfortunately, USAID's budget will almost certainly shrink this year and I can guarantee that this will mean some areas of Yemen will get more aid than others in line with counterterror interests - Shabwa, Mareb, and al Jawf will probably get preferential treatment and a component of aid should be (especially now that it's officially out that the U.S. has been using drone strikes) remuneration for damage done to civilians in those attacks. Beyond that, though, the U.S. needs to be thinking about sustainable options: agriculture reeducation programs to shift farmers from qat to more water-efficient crops, creating production industry jobs, building up Yemen as the global hub of transportation it once was. Despite the fact that it possesses only a pittance of oil, the Yemeni state cannot survive without foreign aid and oil revenues - it needs to move beyond that and if the U.S. wants to retain an amicable relationship without financing the entire state, it needs to take the lead in helping transition to a post-petroleum based economy. Only by creating substantive economic returns can the U.S. hope to create diplomatic ties on the local level.
    USAID has a good start on this, but I really think the key will be a more decentralized approach with a larger diplomatic component.