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Last Friday, hundreds of students and activists gathered in Sana'a University’s square in Yemen to call for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. "Ali, leave, leave -- your seat has oxidized!" they shouted. After an hour of protests, a thousand armed tribesmen -- supporters of Saleh -- surrounded the stage and attacked the demonstrators with knives, batons, and stones, injuring dozens. Known as baltagia (“thugs” in Arabic), the men were mercenaries paid by Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress. Government officials transported the men to the university and provided them with weapons and banners supporting the president.
That violent incident was but one in a number of antigovernment protests that have expanded throughout Yemen, as the main opposition factions have joined the students to call for the end of Saleh’s regime. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have been camping in Yemen’s largest cities -- Taiz, Aden, Ibb, and the capital, Sana’a -- refusing to return home until their demand for Saleh’s exit is met.
Saleh, however, is showing no sign of capitulation -- and he appears willing to use lethal force. A government supporter threw a grenade on a massive demonstration in Taiz last Friday, killing two and injuring 85. Clashes on Wednesday in Sana’a between antigovernment demonstrators and Saleh loyalists left at least one protester dead. All in all, the president’s security forces have killed 15 protesters since February 16. The violence spurred seven members of Yemen’s parliament to resign in protest from the government and the ruling party.
The protests in Yemen truly began on January 16, when hundreds of young liberal students from Sana’a University, inspired by the uprising in Tunisia against the now-deposed Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, demonstrated at the university square to call for Saleh and his family to leave power. Radda al-Salami, a student protester, explained their actions by telling me that he “lost the ability to continue life as it should be.” “I could not complete my university education due to lack of expenses for housing, food, books, and fees,” he said. Angry at the concentration of power and wealth in the Saleh regime, this student movement organized a number of subsequent demonstrations that then drew the attention of Yemen’s established opposition parties.
Wary of his country going the way of Egypt, Saleh announced on February 2 -- as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime lifted its ban on Internet access -- that he would not seek reelection when his current presidential term ends in 2013. Furthermore, he declared that he would not pass control to his family after leaving office. He also postponed national parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for April 27, to reenter dialogue with the opposition parties over electoral issues.
Yet Saleh’s concessions did not mollify the protesters. “Our main demand is to overthrow the backward system in order to replace it with a modern civil national Yemeni state,” said Mizzar al-Jonaid, a leader of the student movement, following Saleh’s speech. Another key activist in the movement, Fakhr al-Azzab, said, "The sole incentive behind these protests is that we -- as Yemeni youth -- want a homeland that is large enough for our hopes, and regime step-down is our goal, as [it] is responsible for the current situation in the country.”
Once others joined the protests, the demonstrating parties fell into three lines. The first involves the established opposition factions: the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which includes six main parties, and the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue (PCND), a broad network of alliances that includes the JMP as well as other opposition parties, the Houthis in the north, civil society organizations, and several tribes.
Founded in 2003 to balance Saleh’s one-party system, the JMP is the largest Yemeni opposition bloc and includes secular parties as well as the moderate Islamic party Islah. It holds 57 of the 301 seats in Yemen’s parliament, chiefly dominated by Islah and several socialist parties. At first, the JMP refrained from calling for Saleh’s ouster, instead demanding that he abandon his attempt to amend Yemen’s constitution to make himself president for life. "The JMP’s agenda focused on changing the nature of the political system, its form and performance," said Abdu Salem, a leading member of Islah. Yet in recent protests, JMP leaders have bowed to pressure from grass-roots activists and appealed for Saleh to leave office immediately.
The PCND formed in June 2008 out of a JMP initiative to unite Yemen’s disparate opposition and civil society factions. It has played a key role in the most recent rallies by mobilizing demonstrators from Yemen’s northern provinces as well as powerful tribal forces, which rarely get involved in political protests. It has also helped to sustain the momentum of the protest movement, which in Sana’a alone is attracting thousands of people every day.
In a second wave of unrest, demonstrators in the southern part of the country have organized a string of semi-daily protests to call for further autonomy from the north. North and South Yemen unified in 1990, after a civil war between the two former states ended with the victory of Saleh’s northern forces. Since then, however, southern Yemenis have remained wary of unification, unhappy with perceived employment discrimination, the wholesale looting of southern natural resources by the north, and political exclusion.
On February 11, factions in the south held a “day of rage” inspired by the Egyptian protests. Tens of thousands participated, despite the use of live fire by security forces. Khalid al-Faiadhi, a leading member of the movement in the Yemeni city of Abyan, confirmed that protest organizers have decided to shift demonstrations from the minor areas to the main cities in the south, including Aden and Al-Mukalla.
The third, and perhaps most crucial, protest faction is a group of liberal youth that have coalesced in the wake of Tunisia and Egypt. Since February 11, the group, called Irhal, has drawn tens of thousands of protesters to camp on the streets of Taiz. Irhal’s spokesman, Bushra al-Maqtari, confirmed the group’s resolve: "We will continue sit-ins until our demands are achieved, including departure of the symbols of corruption and looters of public money, land, and life.”
Yet many observers doubt the possibility of a successful revolt, believing it unlikely that the protests will gain the momentum of a mass national movement, given the fragmented, rural nature of Yemeni society and the high rates of illiteracy, poverty, and political disenfranchisement in the country. Yemen is wracked with internal divisions, with a Shiite rebellion operating in the north since 2004 and secessionist voices in the south only growing stronger as a result of the recent protests. Approximately 70 percent of the population is rural, as opposed to 35 percent in Tunisia and 56 percent in Egypt. Yemen’s poverty rate stands at over 46 percent, compared to Egypt’s 20 percent and Tunisia’s 3.8 percent as of last year. These obstacles will make it difficult for the country to achieve the national unity that is likely necessary to unseat Saleh.
The possibility still exists, however, for Yemen’s protesters to succeed -- albeit in a different manner than in Tunisia or Egypt. Yemen may need far more time to erase the sharp divisions within its social structure -- a healing process required to unite against the Saleh regime and establish democratic institutions. The process and speed of change will depend on the opposition forces in the north and south joining to form new alliances, and the ability of new movements to maintain the interest and support of Yemen’s population.
Much as Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt did, Saleh maintains Western support by raising the specter of extremism overtaking the country should his regime fall. Western policymakers should ignore this threat and support the protest movements in their attempts to develop Yemeni civil society. If the West fails to do so, Yemen will not be the next Egypt. It will be the next Somalia.
For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.