Since the beginning of Yemen’s popular uprising in February, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been putting into practice his skilful art of “dancing on the heads of snakes”.
On the domestic front, he first offered the protesters a number of concessions, but then withdrew them again. He then applied police and military repression as well as exploiting the deep fissures in Yemeni society. For the regional and international audience, Saleh waved his two warning cards: al-Qaida and civil war.
Strategically located at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and being perceived as the homeland of the most dangerous branch of al-Qaida, Yemen is indeed of vital interest to regional and international security. Despite such significance, however, Yemen is the most fragile, least developed and most “food-insecure” political entity in the Middle East. But despite this, over the last three months, Saleh has shown that he is one of the most talented Arab leaders in terms of manoeuvre and survival. Four months after the first calls for him to go, he clings on.
At the end of May, for example, Yemeni army helicopters airlifted the UAE’s international ambassadors out of their besieged embassy in the capital city of Sana’a. The ambassadors had been trapped by armed pro-Saleh supporters who were angry at the deal brokered for the president to step down after more than three decades. But once at the presidential palace, the ambassadors were informed that Saleh had decided not to sign a deal with the opposition after all. It was the third time that he had changed his mind at the last minute and frustrated the regional and international mediators who have been negotiating his political exit for weeks.
A glance at Yemen’s uprising reveals how it is such a unique specimen in the political aquarium of Arab revolutions. While the Tunisian revolution was ignited in a village and Egypt’s in the capital city, the Yemeni social intifada started from everywhere.
Yet it is no coincidence that Yemen’s popular revolution was launched from numerous geographical locations. Saleh adopted “management through conflicts” as one of his essential tools of governance. As a result, on the eve of the revolution, the map of Yemen was completely scarred with deep, unresolved violent conflicts: a northern rebellion, a southern separatist movement, militant jihadists, and bloody intertribal disputes. Each of these conflicts created its own geographical zone of political, economic and security grievances. Each created its own orbit of victims and beneficiaries. The Yemeni revolution is a geographical amalgamation of all of these.
Unlike the other Arab countries where popular protests blossomed, the Yemen of Saleh is neither a police state nor a military dictatorship. It has been governed by a complex, overlapping and competitive structure of familial, clanistic and tribal networks that are constantly mirrored in the security apparatus and in the military.
Saleh cannot hold on for ever, and he will find it increasingly difficult to negotiate the terms of his departure. But while his exit from the political arena will be a symbolic victory for the people, his replacement with another leader will not save the country from its divisions.
Yemen is a deeply fractured country that is in conflict with itself. And it has a long way to go to undo the terrible legacy of state fragility, violence and instability. Tunisia and Egypt are currently in dire need of redefining the relationship between state institutions and citizens. Libya will need to construct a civil society. Syria must open the gates of its closed political arena. Yemen, however, will need to build a state.
By Khaled Fattah, an expert on state-tribe relations in Yemen.