Hello all! Welcome to another stirring edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that dusts off the history beneath the headlines so you can win at your local bar’s trivia night.
In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the current violence and protest movement in Yemen and its fractious history leading to the present, and finally contrast it with the other Arab Spring movements. We’ll also look at the man fueling the protests and who continues to remain in power of Southern Arabia: Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In a sea of tens of thousands of protesters, Yemeni security forces aimed from the crows’ nests of buildings and fired into the crowd wounding 37 protesters on Sunday. The violence came a day after 12 anti-government protesters were killed and 300 injured when security forces opened fire.
The violent response to the 8 month protest movement is part of the ongoing battle between pro-Saleh government forces and an anti-government force, led by the defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. In this way, the Yemeni protest movement has taken a unique divergence from the Syrian uprising, which has been largely a peaceful, non-violent movement (but also facing a brutal government crackdown). Like the Tunisian revolution and simultaneously with the Egyptian revolution, the Yemeni uprising of early 2011 revolved around ousting a long term authoritarian government that had failed to provide for the populace especially during a recession economy. Unemployment, inflation, and limited political freedoms created an atmosphere that resonated with the other Arab protest movements. Soon protests in the capital, Sana’a began to accumulate popularity and concentrate their voice demanding that Saleh step down. For the past 8 months there have been violent government reactions to large public protests that have resulted in casualties on peaceful protesters, including the violence from this weekend.
There is barely a sense of security or order in Yemen since the protests began in early 2011 following the Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” and a chaotic environment persists as violence and massive protests have essentially shut down the country. Despite all this, one thing remains certain: that Ali Abdullah Saleh staunchly refuses to relinquish his Presidency of Yemen.
Like the Al-Assad family in Syria, Mubarak in Egypt, and Qaddafi in Libya, Saleh has been in power for many years and has ruled with an iron fist that has suppressed opposition parties, movements, free speech, and individual liberties. The call for him to step down as President in place of free and fair elections is the driving force behind the protests. Actually accomplishing the protester’s goal of ousting Mr. Saleh will be more difficult than the proposition suggests, even with international pressure.
Saleh came to power first through the North Yemen national army as a soldier and then as part of a provisional presidential council of North Yemen when the N. Yemen president, Ahmed Bin Hussein al-Ghashmi was assassinated in 1978. Later that year, Saleh was elected by the N. Yemeni Parliament to be President, Chief of Staff, and Commander in Chief of armed forces. Right away Saleh showed his willingness to pull the trigger against the opposition when one month after his rise to the presidency, he ordered 30 military officers to be executed, on the presumption that they were conspiring against him (authoritarian leaders usually have trouble with opposing viewpoints).
Saleh became President of the Yemeni Republic in 1990 after the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen. Since his reelection in 1999, he has been obstinate in his hold on the presidency. In 2005, before the presidential election had begun for the following year, Saleh declared he was not running, instead deciding not to run, to “establish ground for a peaceful transfer of power”. A few months later, he changed his mind and won the election easily, but angered many who thought he had held power too long.
As Saleh faced this years’ major national uprising in February, he answered calls to step down by announcing he would not seek reelection in 2013. Understandably, protesters were not placated and the uprising continued. Later in March, Saleh announced that he would separate the executive and legislative branches of government, his effort to show that he was slowly diluting his power. The level of corruptness in the Saleh government and distrust of carrying this out to the fullest extent made this deal seem unsatisfactory as well. In April, Saleh said he would agree to a proposal, the Gulf Initiative, to step down with immunity for him and his family while transitioning power to the General People’s Congress. Before either side signed the provision, Saleh backed down in May. In June, a rocket attack aimed at the mosque inside the Presidential palace seriously wounded Saleh and forced him to leave the country for 3 months (showing the infiltration. His return in August has strengthened his resolve to remain in power. Most recently, a deal made by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to transfer power to Saleh’s Vice President while offering Saleh immunity from prosecution was denied.
Clearly, Saleh has a problem letting go of his increasingly unstable country, and was not the right choice to bring democracy to Yemen. As a former military general, he leads by execution and directness, not participation and debate. He has responded over the years to retain his power through weak concessions, violence, and delaying tactics. All the while, his country has experienced severe poverty, a weak economy, and been a hotbed of radical organization, including several planned Al Qaeda operations (ie. the Christmas Day underwear bomber, and the insurgents who attacked him). International pressure for Saleh to step down has been muted at first, most notably silent from the U.S. because of Saleh’s assistance in tracking down top Al Qaeda commander Anwar Al-Awlaki. Pressure has increased as the international community sees the protests and violence escalating beyond Saleh’s control, and his refusal to sign the Gulf Initiative three times.
Yemen is yet another Arab country with a popular movement seeking to topple a long-term authoritarian regime but the road to the present for Yemen is unique. A predominantly Muslim country since the 6th Century, Yemen derives much of its independent spirit from the teachings of the Shi’ite sect Zaidi, which teach (among many things) that one has the right to overthrow unjust rulers (spoiler alert!). Geographically,
Yemen has held a strategic position on the world stage and its location as a spice trading post fueled their three ancient civilizations. Ptolemy once called Yemen “Arabia Felix” because of its fertile valleys and access between the East and West. Yemen’s importance was primarily as a trading and shipping by-way from the Far East to Europe through the port city of Aden, and the trading city, the current capitol Sana’a. The important geography was seen as a great investment for global powers as the Ottoman Empire extended its reach in the early 19th Century. The British, looking for a cheap and efficient place to stop between India and Europe sought to carve out their influence and in 1832, captured the port of Aden. The British and Ottomans divided Yemen into North and South in 1904 and the British extended their influence further upon the construction of the Suez Canal.
The North became an independently ruled theocracy after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse after WW1. The South stayed in British hands until 1967 when violent Communist backed insurgents forced Her Majesty’s forces to vacate Southern Arabia. When the two Yemens reunited in 1990, Ali Abdullah Saleh found himself ruling over a bitterly fractious political landscape which erupted in Civil War in 1994.
The mess of the two Yemens after the British departed and after Saleh took power left the Yemeni people impoverished and ruled by a corrupt government whose main goal, it seems, has been to retain power instead of building a stable democracy. The result of a large dissident population and jihadist activity is not surprising.
In the context of history, we can make some points about how the country has been transformed to its present predicament:
- Yemen has consistently been ruled by theocrats and foreigners with little or no democracy.
- Its current authoritarian regime has spent its time consolidating power instead of nation building.
- Low security and high poverty from the collapse of the Ottoman and British Empires led to disorganization and divided politics.
- The economic and political climate created the breeding grounds of radical organizations and anti-government protest.
What we have seen in the 2011 Yemeni protests are the Yemeni people exercising their belief that they have the right to overthrow an unjust ruler and to have free and fair elections. Considering that this ruler is a Zaidi Shi-ite, he should know that his reign needs to come to an end for the benefit of the Yemeni people.
If more deals are brokered by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and international pressure reaches the same level it has in Syria, then Saleh may reach a breaking point. Yemen should not count on full support from the U.S. because American officials express concern that a radical change in power could assist in harboring terror organizations.
Considering an explosive injured Saleh and forced him out of office briefly didn’t side track him from keeping control of the Presidency, the protesters are in for a long fight. But the protesters, like in Egypt, are not to be placated by small concessions and are not threatened by violence. They demand removal of Saleh, and it is likely that they will remain on the streets until they get their wish. The opposition also has the benefit of a fairly organized political council (the General People’s Council) that can negotiate with Saleh to make his departure a diplomatic event, instead of a violent revolutionary one (though it has already reached that level). When that comes and how much more violence will occur remains to be seen.
To conclude, we’ll compare the Yemeni Revolution briefly with the other Arab Spring protests/uprisings:
- Again, the Yemeni Revolution is about ousting a long-term authoritarian regime that has suppressed freedoms and presided over a worsening economic situation.
- Like in Egypt and Libya military leaders have defected to the opposition to form a separate fledgling government.
- Government security forces are firing upon unarmed protesters in order to break up the protests to no avail, which some are saying make Saleh a war criminal.
- No official revolutionary war has broken out like in Libya, but there has been an undeclared war between anti-government forces and government security forces resulting in the most recent violence.
- The violence in part has a direct link to terrorist organizations pervasive in Yemen.
I could go on describing many scenarios and events that parallel or branch off from other movements, but I’d like to keep my carpal tunnel. This blog entry is hardly an official history of the 2011 protests; merely a commentary on the protests based on historical background.
I Hope you enjoyed the analysis of Yemen, and stay tuned for analysis on current events to come.
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson