Saleh Falls

February 21, 2011 Topic: EconomicsDemocracySociety Region: Yemen

Saleh Falls

Once people are in the streets there will be no going back—Yemen is no exception.

As the revolutionary spirit sweeps beyond Tunisia and Egypt to other Arab countries in the Mideast and Gulf, many wonder which country will be next to fall in the Arab world. We have already seen clamors for reform in Syria and Jordan; protests have spread throughout Khartoum. But the strongest candidate for the next upheaval is Yemen. With 35% unemployment and a paltry $2,600 in GDP per capita, Yemen ranks as the Arab world's most destitute country.

The unemployment rate and other economic indicators suggest that Yemen is near its breaking point. The people are clamoring for substantive policy reforms. They are demanding that the government engage in meaningful dialogue with opposition groups that will ultimately lead to open political participation and free and fair elections. But appearances are often misleading—especially in the Middle East.

Not everything about Yemen portends revolution. The complex mosaic of Yemeni politics (which has led to decades of instability and economic woes) disperses anger across a range of responsible groups: from the Houthi rebels in the north, and the separatist movement in the south to the looming specter of Al-Qaeda. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where protestors concentrate their rage towards the government only, the Yemeni people scatter their anger, leaving anti-government sentiment weaker. The Yemeni government has even benefited from sectarian conflicts, arguing that the alternative to the central government in Sana'a is civil war and widespread violence. The 60 million firearms spread amongst Yemini citizens—or one for every three people—certainly support the government's argument. Many Yemenis do, in fact, fear that an uprising striving for democracy would produce chaos instead.

Yemen is dominated by a strong, ingrained tribal system where President Saleh enjoys strong relations with the major tribal leaders. A popular revolution in Egypt and Tunisia needed the public endorsement of a few individuals; an uprising in Yemen will first require the blessing and participation of the tribes. Since each tribe features its own economic, social and political agenda—in addition to the tribes' historical hesitancy to confront the government—a pan –tribal alliance with the aim of uprooting the political system is remote.

In addition, internet usage in Yemen also differs strikingly from Egypt and Tunisia. Social media, which effectively and immediately disseminated crucial updates, played an undeniable factor in the North African uprisings. But only 9.4 percent of Yeminis can access the internet, compared to 36% of Tunisians. Because social media in Yemen would be unable to mobilize potential demonstrators, a mass revolution against the regime will have to take a different form.

But—and this is the key—despite all these challenges, the Yemeni opposition is making progress towards an uprising against President Saleh. The abject poverty and destitution of the Yemini population are the foundation of support for opposition. With 35% unemployment and 40% living below $2 a day, the need for change is obvious. In the aftermath of Tunisia and Egypt, many ordinary Yeminis are starting to hold the regime solely responsible for their impoverished lives.

In paving the road from popular discontent to political upheaval, the Yeminis have drawn lessons from Tunisia and Egypt where possible. First and foremost, they have learned that traditional opposition parties do not produce revolutions. Islamists like the Brotherhood, as well as secular groups like the Al-Wafd party in Egypt, were just overwhelmed by the emergence of a new type of opposition that came from the educated but unemployed youth as was Mubarak. It was this same type of protestor that organized the anti-regime demonstrations in Yemen over the past two weeks. Tawakkul Karman emerged as a young woman leading the call for change. While the traditional opposition continues dialogue with the government, it is the new, young opposition that aggressively campaigns for change. Fueled by the hope of recent weeks, Yemeni youth believe they can forge a brighter future for themselves and their country.

This young opposition's outreach efforts have proven remarkably successful in uniting various factions against Saleh's government. Karman presented the situation as follows, "We have the Southern Movement in the South, the (Shia) Huthi rebels in the north, and parliamentary opposition," all uniting against the regime. The young protestors are fashioning a wide coalition of opposition across the country that together would act to topple the regime. And the opposition's ability to reflect, learn from mistakes, and adapt to a fast-paced environment has only added to their success. In short, this is a dynamic opposition.

After over a week of protests, President Saleh certainly feels the heat. He declared his commitment to reform. He vowed not to seek reelection in 2013, nor will his son run for office. Though the protestors have not yet brought about complete regime change, they are well on their way. Saleh's commitment to "no extension, no inheritance," long contested between opposition groups and government, is a turning point in modern political history of Yemen.


Should President Saleh remain in power until 2013, he must do more to respond sufficiently to the calls for change by the protesters and the wider society: a declaration of specific election date; fair and free elections; international elections observers to monitor them; and inclusion of opposition representatives in election preparations. The Obama administration, fearful of an Egypt replay in Yemen, can have a pivotal role in shepherding genuine reform efforts. It’s best for Washington to preserve an important ally in Saleh while carefully and deliberately building towards a more democratic Yemen.

One important lesson has been learnt from Tunisia and Egypt: once people are in the streets there will be no going back.