Yemen on the Brink

Will Saleh's Resignation Lead to Democratic Reform?

Courtesy Reuters

As the political battle for Yemen’s future unfolds, the country’s most immediate challenge is to avert a bloody civil war. Yet if Yemenis avoid this outcome by peacefully transitioning power, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s replacements will immediately face a daunting economic crisis, festering regional tensions, and an unstable security environment. Moreover, as Saleh negotiates with elites in the capital, powerful tribal and religious interest groups may drown out the youth and civil society protesters demanding far-reaching democratic reform.

Those currently aligned against Saleh represent a diverse group of unlikely allies. Youth and civil society activists originally initiated the anti-regime protests and stand at their symbolic core. But over time and for various reasons -- including genuine support for democratic change, opposition to Saleh’s heavy-handed response to the protests, and political opportunism -- established opposition parties, Huthis rebels, some southern separatists, religious leaders, prominent tribal sheikhs, businessmen, and army commanders have joined the protests. Although youth and civil society activists welcome assistance in ousting Saleh, they are legitimately skeptical of the role that some of these forces may play in the future.

Among these latecomers is the country’s major opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties, a conglomeration of five opposition parties, including the country’s main Islamist opposition, Islah, and the Yemeni Socialist Party. Although the JMP eventually joined the protests and now advocates for Saleh’s immediate departure, some of its members -- particularly Islah’s leadership -- enjoy deep personal, financial, and political connections with the current regime. These connections raise questions about the ability or desire of the JMP to faithfully negotiate on behalf of those protesting on the streets. Liberal Yemenis are also deeply concerned about the future role of the Salafi wing of Islah, headed by the powerful cleric, Abdulmajid al-Zindani.

More significantly, the protest movement has increasingly become a battleground for powerful forces within Saleh’s own tribal confederation, Hashid. The sons of Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar, the late preeminent

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