To Yemenis, violence in the streets and threats of state collapse are nothing new. Despite reports portraying the protests in Yemen as something of a revolution, democratic change has little possibility of success. President Ali Abdullah Saleh is essentially a figurehead; whether he stays or goes, the regime of technocrats and thugs he represents is unlikely to fold under pressure.
Since Mr. Saleh came to power in North Yemen in a 1978 coup, his regime has selectively used state violence to maintain its hold, often working through militias and other loyalists, including radical Sunni Muslims sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Predictably, the violence has come at great cost to a country struggling with high unemployment and widespread poverty.
North Yemen and South Yemen were unified only in 1990, and quickly descended into a brief, bloody civil war in 1994, in which the north, aided by Saudi-financed Salafist groups, decimated the political order of the south, home to the country’s best-educated, most cosmopolitan citizens. Two long-running conflicts — a revolt in the northwest and a separatist insurrection in the oil- and gas-rich south — have further fractured the society.
Societal fragmentation makes it hard for the opposition to move beyond its misleadingly simple goal of “change.” It is true that the hundreds of thousands of mostly young people in the streets have common traits; certainly unemployment and poverty explain their persistence.
But they are not a unified opposition. Indeed, one factor that has kept the United States and its allies from openly embracing the protesters in the streets is the incoherence of an opposition comprising upward of 100 distinct groups.
While the Obama administration has now grudgingly called for Mr. Saleh’s removal, it understandably does not want to undermine America’s long-term investment in the Yemeni regime. Washington’s inaction as dissidents were persecuted and civilians were killed has cost it credibility, as evidenced by the protesters’ cold response to the calls by the United States and by the Gulf Cooperation Council for a peaceful transition of presidential power. These overtures — too little, too late — sound empty to leaders of the opposition, like the remarkable feminist activist Tawakul Karman, who has opposed the Saleh regime since 2007 without American support.
The lack of connection with the Yemeni people cannot be easily ignored by anyone concerned about American influence in the region. For years the Saleh regime has exploited the war on terrorism for all it was worth, masterfully playing on the security fears of the United States and Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and branding its political opponents as terrorists, for financial and political benefit. It has also devastated the opposition; years of killing and intimidation have left Yemeni reformers leaderless and despondent.
Meanwhile, the two regional conflicts have forced hundreds of thousands of Yemenis to flee to the slums of the capital, Sana, and cities like Mukalla, Taiz and Aden, where many have become eager participants in the street protests. Unfortunately, recent defections by some top military officers have enervated, rather than energized, these protests.
The best known of the so-called defectors is Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar. But in supposedly joining the protesters — many of whom are suspicious of his motives — he has weakened the possibility of unity among them. It was General Muhsin, after all, who commanded the forces against the rebels in northwest Yemen; for many, he is the hated face of the regime. In Egypt, where the army is widely admired, the defection of military officers from Hosni Mubarak’s regime emboldened the opposition; in Yemen, distrust of the generals, particularly in the two conflict zones, means that the defections have had the opposite effect.
Paradoxically, the state’s indiscriminate use of violence — at least 100 Yemenis have been killed since early February — has been the one thing that could potentially bridge the regional, class and sectarian divisions within the opposition. But in the end, the disparate protest groups face daunting obstacles. They are confronting an entrenched political class that is protected by a hard-core, fiercely loyal Republican Guard and by American-trained special operations units.
Yemen’s brave youth surely must know that the government — though perhaps not its figurehead, Mr. Saleh — is insulated from regime change, forcible or otherwise. The regime’s resources — a mix of Western military aid and oil revenues — give it up the upper hand.
True change in Yemen would require Washington to abandon its long-held aid programs for the country’s oligarchs, given under the guise of counterterrorism, and support democratic processes, wherever they may lead.
Given the mistrust that permeates Yemeni society, an inconclusive repositioning of the fractured opposition is a more likely outcome. Those now putting their lives on the line for dignity, freedom and justice could be reconfigured into violent factions, leading to a new phase of hostility against the United States and its Saudi allies. Whatever happens to Mr. Saleh, Yemen’s future looks bleak.
By Isa Blumi, an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University, a fellow at the Center for Area Studies at the University of Leipzig and the author of Chaos in Yemen: Societal Collapse and the New Authoritarianism.