Unprecedented protests and the regime’s heavy-handed response risk pushing Yemen into widespread violence but also could and should be a catalyst for long overdue, far reaching political reform.
Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (II): Yemen between Reform and Revolution, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, analyses the recent wave of demonstrations that has swept the country. It describes the threat of a descent toward civil strife as a result of popular grievances, tribal tensions, insurrectionary threats in the north and south and the ready availability of weapons. At the same time, it points out that a chance remains for political and social leaders to negotiate a more democratic and inclusive power-sharing arrangement.
Even before the recent popular uprising, conditions were fast deteriorating. The Huthi rebellion in the north remained unresolved; the southern separatist movement was growing in strength. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was expanding operations both inside and outside the country. Economic conditions were worsening. And important political reforms were stalled.
“The current wave of protests could serve as a wake-up call”, says Crisis Group’s Middle East & North Africa Program Director, Robert Malley. “It could signal the potential for mass action to upend the power structure and impel the regime to negotiate a new social contract based on power sharing and accountable institutions”.
Although there are strong reasons for concern, there also is reason to believe this chance might be seized. While the regime has engaged in brutal repression, President Saleh typically has resorted to compromise, seeking to co-opt opposition members. The country possesses flawed but functioning formal and informal institutions that provide outlets for political competition and dissent. The opposition, despite internal divisions, has begun to coalesce, and the protest movement is showing remarkable staying power.
The protesters, with the wind at their back, expect nothing less than the president’s quick ouster. The president and those who have benefited from his rule are unlikely to give in without a fight. Finding a compromise will not be easy. Several steps will be required:
- The regime must make far more significant concessions that fundamentally alter a system that has relied on patronage and dominance by the president and military/security apparatus.
- The opposition should continue to support the protest movement, while pursuing negotiations over a peaceful transfer of power and putting forward a prioritised agenda for an inclusive national dialogue.
- The international community should promote national dialogue, give priority to political and economic development and ensure security assistance is not used to suppress opposition.
“It is incumbent upon Yemen’s political leaders to establish a clear path for implementing both Saleh’s promises and ensuring a peaceful transfer of power”, says April Alley, Crisis Group’s Senior Arabian Peninsula Analyst. “Time is of the essence. The alternative could be a cycle of serious, pervasive violence that would jeopardise the real possibility to reform a failing social contract”.