Monday, March 21, 2011

Behind the Curve

The situation in Yemen has changed dramatically since the violent attacks on protesters camped out at Sana'a University this past Friday. The president has dismissed his cabinet and watched a series of high level officials resign their positions in the government and throw their support behind the protests. Significant among those resignations was General Ahmar, often considered the third in command behind the president and his son. While one can not predict perfectly the course Yemen will follow from here, I again believe that Yemen has passed the tipping point and there is no going back without significant political change.

I want to focus briefly on the position of the US government to these developments. In western media, it appears the US is unwilling to take a decisive stance against the Yemeni president because he is a strong ally against terrorism and if he were to be forced from power then Yemen would become an AQAP sanctuary. I believe US concerns about terrorism are badly distorting its policy toward Yemen. While there may be a minority of Yemenis that sympathize with AQAP, an overwhelming majority want to live in a country that is not scorned on the international stage or that can permit its citizens to travel abroad without heavy screening. AQAP's message in Yemen blends its jihadist call with the narrative of domestic Yemeni grievances to gain appeal. If a democratic revolution occurred in Yemen, there would be no space for AQAP, its operatives or its message to harness domestic grievances for its own ends. I fear that the US, by failing to support the protesters thereby tacitly supporting the regime, empowers the regime to hang on to power longer and thus steer the country toward greater violence and unrest, a world in which AQAP can thrive or at least survive.

Realistically as well, AQAP in Yemen may never be completely destroyed, either through regime and attitude change or military means. I believe, however, that strong governance in Yemen holds more power to rend AQAP meaningless than violence through air strikes or civil unrest. Any situation in which people are pushed to pick up arms only plays into AQAP's hands and allows them to propagate their message.

Finally, the US government has yet to tell its citizens to leave Yemen. What sort of development are they waiting for? All prior messages from the US embassy stressed that in the event of an emergency, travel would be extremely limited and dangerous yet they have not upgraded their message from 'suggested departure' to 'go.' The US should rethink its approach to Yemen and decide if it wants to be on the side of the Yemeni people. That side is conveniently the side against AQAP. C'mon US government!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Plot Lines and other developments

Residents in Aden (for a while I tried to hide where I live but then realized that it must be pretty obvious from what I say. Anyway,) have been breaking out their sidewalk chalk recently. However, more than doodling rainbows and sunsets on the sidewalk, they have been staking claims to undeveloped plots of land, land that they claim northerners unlawfully took and sold after the civil war. Chalk lines and rock outline of plots can been seen all over Aden, even up the sides of some hills. The ground looks a bit like an unused color by numbers.

I see this as a remarkable statement about the situation in Yemen. Southerns seem to not be afraid of northern retribution and must have the sense that the time is coming when they can reclaim their land from those in the regime that took it.

In general, I think Yemen has a difficult time ahead of it. There are sustained protests in Taiz and Sana'a that are increasingly clashing with the police. The sense is that Yemen has passed a tipping point - there is no going back to life as usual without change. It is not clear still however, what that change will look like. The protesters and opposition have rejected all proposals for dialogue, demanding the resignation of the president and a removal of his family from positions of power.

Given the degree to which Yemenis possess firearms, I doubt the regime will try to use the army to suppress the people on a full scale as in Libya. The advantages that Qaddafi enjoys in Libya such as tanks could be matched by the possessed fire power of the people. That's a scary thought. Perhaps though it means Yemen will be spared the horror being committed in Libya.

This will likely be my last post from Yemen as I will be leaving soon. I will do my best to keep writing about Yemen related issues but I can't make any promises.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Do we have a budget for name tags?

The man is saying "The next Arab summit conference will be for introductions"

Trust games and slumber parties!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Safeties First

Clashes in north Yemen left several dead (see article here) The incident occurred in Sa'ada, the site of recurring conflict between Houthi rebels and government forces. To make a very long story short, the Houthi rebellion began as a police action to arrest Husein al-Houthi but has continued to rage, alternating between low-level conflict to full pitched battles, since 2004. The root cause of the conflict has largely been lost as grievances have built on both sides after years of warfare and destruction.

The Houthi leadership recently announced their support for the protests calling for the president to resign. This is notable as it signals an abandonment (at least temporarily) of regional conflict in favor of a united front against the regime. I can't remember if the Southern movement has made a similar declaration but it as well would mean trouble for the president.

The truth of what happened Friday in Sa'ada is unknown. The Houthis claim that soldiers opened fire on a peaceful procession. The soldiers claim that armed men stormed an army base. Either way, shootings or rumors of shootings, particularly ones in which peaceful protesters are victims of aggressive government agents, will likely galvanize more people to the opposition as it changes the dynamic, raises emotions and boils tempers.

On a related note, I am yet to see a Yemeni soldier or police officer in proper riot gear. Perhaps if they had an alternative to firing their gun they might not shoot so much.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The people want....?

Um. Err. Well.

The people are still making up their minds in Yemen. There are minority groups, the group gathered at Sana'a University and groups in Taiz that have demonstrated commitment to the protests but the public at large is still content to observe and not participate. The street protests in Egypt were popular in a way the protests in Yemen are not, at least not yet.

Political parties in Yemen are still finding their place in the uprising. Yemeni political parties seem to be the only entities with the organizational capacity to stage large protests but they suffer from a lack of support. They initially tried to lead the charge and are now searching to time and ride the waves of popular anger. Today, the latest Day of Rage in Yemen, was another such attempt to time political party involvement with a rise in popular protest momentum. From what I can tell, it was not successful.

A development to watch is the recent declarations by tribal leaders throwing their support behind the opposition movement. One such leader, from the president's own tribe, has called for the tribe to join the protests this coming Friday in Sana'a. Tribal allegiances play an critical balancing role in Yemeni politics. Last week the president paid visits to tribal leaders near the capital, passing out money and new cars in an effort to secure their support. Both the ruling party and the opposition recognize the importance of the tribes and the unrest taking on a strong tribal dynamic could raise concerns of civil war.

The NY times reported today that a Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen called for the protests to bring about an Islamic state in Yemen. That has been part of AQAP's narrative in Yemen but does not really have traction with the ordinary Yemeni. AQAP even recognizes that and already tries to adapt its messages to more align with Yemeni domestic grievances. I doubt that AQAP's call for an Islamic state will draw out more protesters. People smarter than me believe that AQAP thrives in Yemen because of a weak state presence in rural areas and potential state support for AQAP as it keeps international aid coming into the country. A regime change would likely mean a less favorable environment for AQAP activities. When AQAP's narrative can no longer use domestic greivances, I believe tolerance for their activities will fade.

The police response to protests in the southern city of Aden has been disproportionately violent compared to police action in other regions. The president's message to protect peaceful protesters did not seem to make to the forces he sent to Aden. The extreme use of violent force in the former capital of South Yemen by police and army forces enhances the north-south regional dynamic and has the potential to fuel larger, more angry protests if there are more deaths.

Finally, today the Yemeni president claimed that the current unrest in the Arab world is a plot hatched by Israel and the US to undermine Arab regimes. I don't know how people are reacting to that but it seems to me as a pretty transparent attempt to redirection attention off his regime.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Yemen Forecast

It's warming up. I mean, literally, the weather starting to be hot again. I was really hoping the Yemeni winter would stay a couple more months but the spring/summer/fall monster of heat and humidity is moving back in. Alas.

Being more pensive and metaphorical for a moment, here are where things stand in Yemen's political arena and thoughts on what could be coming. The protests last Thursday did not make the big waves Western observers were expecting. As you might have read, Yemen opposition parties called for protests last Thursday against the government. Protests occurred in the big cities but were moderate in size, peaceful, and dispersed before lunch. In Sana'a, a sizable crowd gathered for a pro-government rally in Sana'a's Liberation Square calling for reform but not for regime change. Rumor has it that those protesters received 2000 YR for their morning of shouting and cheering. That's good money for a half day of work in Yemen.

The opposition has vowed to protest every Thursday until those demands are met. it is not clear whether these protests will be more intense or longer than those last Thursday. Local threat analysts say the likelihood of Yemen being the next Egypt are low right now but note that if Yemen was to experience wide spread protests, they would likely be violent given the country is awash in firearms.

Gregory Johnson, a professor at Princeton University, keeps a insightful blog on Yemen called Waq al-Waq. I encourage you to read his posts. You will find a link to his blog on the right of this blog. I enjoy sharing my attempts at political analysis with you but encourage you to read his posts for a more informed perspective.

He writes in his post recent post that he thinks Yemen will be in trouble if two things happen: 1. Mubarak falls in Egypt and 2. Yemenis take to the street outside the control of political parties in popular protests. Some analysts after last Thursdays largely quiet day of rage concluded Yemen will not follow the path of Tunisia and Egypt. Johnson instead, noting that Yemen has historically been the caboose of the Arab political fashion train, urges patience in forecasting Yemen's future.

As for the weather, it's getting warmer.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Join the Flour Revolution. It's the yeast you can do

A man taking part in anti-government protests in Sana'a. It is not clear if the bread and roll are for protection or a mid-protest snack.

From here
Courtesy of NG