Yemen: Scale of rebellion ‘impossible to predict’

March 5, 2011

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Yemen in anti-government protests. Demonstrators have demanded an end to the long-running regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemen’s coalition of political opposition parties, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), finally joined the protests in late February. This came after a speech in which Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for more than 30 years, blamed uprisings on a conspiracy by foreign governments — specifically the United States — to destabilise the nation.

Sarah Phillips, who specialises in governance and reform in Yemen and the Middle East at Sydney University’s Centre for International Security Studies, told Green Left Weekly: “The dominant policy that is followed from the West, particularly the US, but also Britain, and to a lesser extent the European Union, is about stabilisation.

“The regime is going through a terribly difficult time and it must be stabilised: that’s the main policy idea.”

Phillips said that in finally joining the protests, it seemed the JMP was “trying to harness something that has already happened”.

“The main formal opposition is a coalition of between six and seven opposition parties, the most powerful of which is the Islah party, which is an Islamist party," Phillips said.

“It is widely considered to have been co-opted into the establishment. They are usually termed a loyal opposition, although there are segments within the party that strongly call for genuine change.

“The other really significant party is the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), which is the former ruling party in the south.”

In response to protests, Saleh has offered ministerial positions to the opposition. The opposition turned down this offer and continued to call on Saleh to step down.

Phillips said: “There has been an ongoing process of dialogue, between government and opposition since at least 2006.

“So the fact that [Saleh] has come out and offered something is probably deemed to be insincere by the opposition. The opposition do not trust him.

“The opposition is also not particularly powerful either. They do not currently present as a credible alternative government waiting in the wings.”

Phillips said that even if the opposition put forward ministers, this would not necessarily lead to a “huge amount” of change.

“The various negotiations and settlements that the different parties have had to come to in order to stay together as a coalition has weakened them. They are weaker than the sum of their parts, rather than stronger.”

However, Phillips said it is important to look beyond the formal political opposition in Yemen.

“There are all different threads of opposition, there is so much more going on in Yemen than just the formal opposition parties.

“There is a southern secessionist movement, which the JMP has variously tried to attach themselves to or remove themselves from at different times. There is also an insurgency movement going on in the north.

“Then you’ve got just swathes of angry, hungry and disempowered people. The link between all of these different disparate groups is the call for Saleh to leave.”

Comparisons have been drawn between the situation in Yemen and the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, but Phillips points out that there are important differences to consider.

Speaking at a Sydney University forum on February 15, Phillips said: “There is not a tradition of mass protest, or unionisation, or mobilisation in Yemen under Saleh.

“If you thought that Egypt and Tunisia’s human development indicators looked bad, then Yemen really puts that into even sharper focus: Yemenis are far younger than elsewhere in the region, the median age in Yemen is actually less than 18 years old.

“In Egypt it is 24, and in Tunisia it is around about 30.

“Yemenis are also a lot more economically vulnerable than Egyptians or Tunisians. Yemeni unemployment is about double the sorts of figures we are seeing elsewhere.

“The number of Yemenis living below the poverty line is at least 45%, which is much higher than elsewhere in the region. Yemenis are also hungrier.”

Phillips posed the question of whether food security and other such indicators made people more or less likely to fight: “Will they be more preoccupied with basic survival than waging a revolution?”

Phillips noted what she said was “an extreme example” — the case of the civil war in Somalia where people simply did not have access to sufficient amounts of food to sustain a fightback.

However, she said: “I think Mubarak’s departure was a game changer because the idea is now out there that maybe this is achievable.”

Saleh has been violently suppressing protests. Phillips said: “The president is serious in willing to threaten to inflict pain [on people protesting], and has shown he is willing to do that.

“He is trying to put out a very formidable first play and see how that goes and see if he can scare people off.

“It's really going to come down to how staunch people are on the streets. If people are patient and they just keep on demanding that there is a real shift, then he doesn’t have a lot of money and can't keep buying weapons or paying people off.”

On the potential in Yemen for outcomes such as those in Tunisia or Egypt, Phillips said: “If something like that does happen it probably won’t be because of anything the JMP has done.

“This will, more likely, come down to what the tribes do and, most importantly, it will come down to what the people around the president do.

“His own inner circle, do they decide to stand by him or do they think the writing is on the wall, as the military did in Egypt and Tunisia, and ditch him?

“It really depends on those factors much more than it depends on what the formal opposition tries to do.”

Phillips says what comes next for Yemen is “completely unpredictable”.

“We can pretty much predict what the regime is going to do, that’s pretty standard stuff. But it now comes down to what people do on the streets, and the dynamics of protest are infinitely complex: they could sense an opportunity and decide to go for it, or they could decide it’s not worth it this time.

“And that is impossible to predict.”

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.