|from 'Foreign Policy in Focus'
Yemen on the Edge
By Stephen Zunes
Since Obama came to office in January 2009, U.S. security assistance
to the Yemeni regime has gone up 20-fold. Despite such large-scale
unconditional support, however, the 32-year reign of autocratic
President Ali Abdullah Saleh may finally be coming to an end. Yet the
Obama administration has been ambivalent in its support for a
democratic transition in this impoverished but strategically important
Saleh’s behavior has gotten increasingly bizarre. He has begun
claiming that an unlikely coalition of Israel and Qatar has incited
and financed the pro-democracy struggle, and that women in leadership
positions in the pro-democracy struggle and even men and women
protesting in the streets together is somehow “un-Islamic.”
Efforts by Saudi Arabia and other regional monarchies to negotiate
Saleh’s resignation, despite showing some initial promise, have failed
both as a result of the dictator’s obstinacy and the protesters’
demands for a genuine democratic transition. Saleh continues to lose
support despite his corrupt system of patronage. This policy of “bribe
a tribe” appears to be failing as tribal leaders, top military
officers, and other formal allies have joined the protesters in
demanding that the increasingly repressive and eccentric U.S.-backed
dictator to step down.
Yemen is a desperately poor country, with high unemployment, and a
long history of division and instability. Sheila Carapico, a professor
at the University of Richmond, has described
the grotesque enrichment of regime cronies at the expense of the many;
deteriorating standards of living; obscenely bad schools, hospitals
and roads; the skyrocketing price of meat, staples and even clean
water; the lack of jobs for college and high-school graduates. …
Grandiose pageants of presidential power, half-truths in the official
media, indignities at military checkpoints, arbitrary arrests and
imprisonments -- these and other daily insults feed popular
alienation, despair and frustration, most notably among the youth.
While a privileged few cool off in swimming pools in their luxury
compounds, the water table has fallen, decimating the farm economy
that remains the livelihood of the rural majority. Farmers and
ranchers facing starvation have flocked to the cities where water
supplies and social services are swamped. Misery has become the new
normal; millions barely survive on the equivalent of a dollar or two
The United States has sent plenty of money, but it's almost all been
military assistance. The small amounts of economic aid have mostly
gone through corrupt government channels.
Until the pro-democracy struggle emerged as a major nationwide
challenge to the regime, the attention of the U.S. media and the Obama
administration had almost exclusively been on al-Qaeda cells operating
in the country and Shiite Houthi tribesmen fighting in a remote
northern region. There was a sense that the people of Yemen were too
poor or too tribal or too “backward” to engage in a nonviolent civil
insurrection against their dictator. However, as other unarmed
pro-democracy uprisings in the region have demonstrated, the desire of
human freedom and the willingness face down the tanks, machine guns,
tear gas, and truncheons to defend basic rights is indeed universal.
As with Tunisia and Egypt, young people make up the majority of the
protesters, though people of all ages have taken to the streets in
more than a dozen cities across the country. As with similar
pro-democracy protests, there has been a strong cultural dimension,
including street theater, music, dancing, and other performance art.
Protesters have used tactics that illustrate the unity of the
movement, such as 50,000 hands being clasped above the crowd.
Yemen is the most heavily armed countries in the world in terms of
individual gun ownership, with some estimates as high as three weapons
per person. The fact that the millions of Yemenis who have taken to
the streets have consciously left them at home and largely maintained
a strict nonviolent discipline is nothing short of remarkable. At a
recent demonstration in the tribal al-Bayda region, men brought guns
only to throw them down on the ground shouting “silmiyya!”
(“peacefully!”), a common chant of the protests. Indeed, the extent
of the pro-democracy struggle and its commitment to nonviolence is
comparable to the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and earlier
unarmed insurrections in Serbia, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines,
Chile, and elsewhere.
Despite diplomatic cables going back as far as 2005 indicating that
Saleh could potentially face a popular pro-democracy uprising, the
Obama administration appears to have been caught completely off-guard.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that Washington
had not planned for an era without Saleh. As one former ambassador to
Yemen put it in back in March, “For right now, he’s our guy.”
Since then, the Obama administration has belatedly joined its European
allies in encouraging Saleh to step aside. At the same time, the
United States has not been very supportive of the pro-democracy
protests either. For example, following government attacks on peaceful
pro-democracy protesters two weeks ago, which killed a dozen
protesters and injured hundreds of others, the U.S. embassy called on
the Yemenis to cooperate with the rather dubious Saudi-led
negotiations for a transition by “avoiding all provocative
demonstrations, marches and speeches in the coming days.”
Recently released Wikileaks cables have also demonstrated that U.S.
military assistance increased despite evidence that Saleh was using
U.S.-supplied weapons not against al-Qaeda as promised but against
domestic opposition to his increasingly repressive rule. As a result
of the popular protests, Washington has frozen the more than $1
billion in military aid currently in the pipeline. But Washington has
acted more out of concern over Saleh's successor than genuine outrage
at the dramatically increased repression.
It’s time for the United States to recognize that the future of the
Middle East is not in the hands of aging autocrats like Saleh or even
traditional elite oppositionists, but in civil society. Ultimately
power comes not from well-armed people at the top but from the consent
of the people.
Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist, is a professor of
politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San
Francisco. He is the author, along with Jacob Mundy, of Western
Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse
University Press, 2010).