Road to Revolution: A Timeline of Yemen Under Saleh

Successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt undoubtedly inspired this year’s protests for revolution in Yemen, but political dissatisfaction in the country was simmering long before the events of the Arab Spring pushed it to boil into the streets. 

In late 2010, delays and lack of progress in a National Dialogue meant to address election reform began to frustrate political activists hoping to achieve meaningful results. Furthermore, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s support from his inner circle began to wane throughout the decade due to his perceived machinations to stay in power long enough to hand authority over to his son. Add in a resurgent secessionist movement in the south and the rising influence of Al-Qaeda, and it’s easy to see why the country was primed for a revolutionary spark.

To give broader context to this year’s protests, here is a timeline of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s reign as president of Yemen, from unification in 1990 to present.

1990

The Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) unite to form the Republic of Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of North Yemen, remains as president of the united country.

1991

Yemen, the only Arab state on the UN Security Council at the time, abstains from the vote on military action against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. This leads Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to expel nearly one million Yemeni expatriate workers. The resulting loss in remittances is largely replaced by revenue from recently discovered oil, thereby concentrating wealth that had previously been privately controlled in the hands of the government.

1994

Unified Yemen breaks out in civil war. Northern victory preserves the state’s unity but the aftermath increases southern perceptions that the north is exploiting their land and resources. Lingering dissatisfaction with the north leads to the resurgence of the Southern Mobility Movement, a group calling for secession.

1999

Saleh wins the first direct presidential election held in unified Yemen.

2001: February

The presidential term limit is extended to seven years from five.

2001: November

Saleh visits Washington, D.C. to affirm his cooperation with the U.S. in the War on Terror.

2002

The first U.S. conducted drone strike in Yemen kills an Al-Qaeda leader suspected of involvement in the U.S.S. Cole attack, symbolizing Saleh’s early commitment to cooperation with America in combating terrorism.

2004

An on-again, off-again war with followers of the Houthi clan begins in Saada, a northern governorate. The conflict centers on a complex mix of regional Zaydi reaction against alleged state support for Salafism and desire for increased regional autonomy.

2006: February

After Al-Qaeda has nearly been entirely wiped out in Yemen, 23 inmates escape from a prison located in the capital of Sana’a. Assumed to be among them is Nasir al Wihayshi, who later becomes the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The escape has been interpreted by some analysts as a sign of Saleh’s declining commitment to cooperating with the United States on terrorism issues.

2006: September

Saleh, after backtracking on an earlier statement that he would not seek reelection, wins the presidency in a landslide victory during the second presidential election held since unification amidst allegations of vote manipulation. A European Union Election Observation Mission declared the contest “open and genuine” despite “important shortcomings.”

2007

Abdullah al-Ahmar, leader of Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation, speaker of parliament, and supporter of Saleh, dies of cancer. His death begins a decline in his family's tribal support for Saleh as his sons are less inclined to maintain loyalty to the president.

2009

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a merger of the Saudi and Yemeni Al-Qaeda branches, is formed. AQAP comes dangerously close to attacking the United States twice over the next two years.

2010

As 2010 draws to a close, delays in implementing the National Dialogue between the ruling party and the coalition of opposition parties create disillusionment with Dialogue’s ability to address election reform.

2011: January 1

The ruling party-dominated parliament backs a proposed constitutional amendment to terminate the two-term limit on the presidency, sparking fears that Saleh is maneuvering to seek life presidency and further reducing confidence in the efficacy of dialogue for election reform.

2011: January – February 2

In an effort to prevent the spread of revolution from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen, Saleh promises not to seek reelection in 2013, delays the April parliamentary elections as requested by the opposition bloc, and announces welfare, tax, and political reforms.

2011: February 3

Opposition party leaders and political activists hold anti-government rallies in a Yemeni “Day of Rage” styled after similarly named protests in Egypt. Pro-government rallies are also held.

2011: February 11

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall rejuvenates protests and sparks the establishment of “Change Square” sit-in camps in cities across Yemen.

2011: March 18

An estimated 52 protesters are killed by pro-government sniper fire at Change Square in Sana’a. The sharp increase in violence leads to the defection of former Saleh ally Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and a number of prominent tribal leaders.

2011: May 22

After numerous mediation efforts, Saleh refuses for the third time to sign the GCC-sponsored power transition initiative. Fighting in Sana’a soon breaks out as government forces besiege the residence of the head of Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation.

2011: May 29

The protest camp in Taiz, one of Yemen’s most important cities, is burned down. Regional tribal leaders later take up arms to protect protesters from government forces as they reestablish their camp.

2011: May 29

Militants alleged to have links with Al-Qaeda seize the capital of Abyan Governate, east of the well-known city of Aden, as most government forces withdraw from their posts. An army division claiming neutrality in the political struggle remains to combat the militants in ongoing fighting.

2011: June 3

Two weeks of clashes between the regime and members of the Hashid tribal confederation in Sana’a come to a head when Saleh is critically injured during an assassination attempt at his palace. He remains in Saudi Arabia after receiving treatment for his wounds.

2011: August 7

Saleh is released from his hospital in Riyadh, renewing fears that he will return to Yemen.

2011: August 18

Yemeni opposition activists form a transition council, aiming to strengthen their demand for power transition even as remnants of Saleh’s regime remain intact and pro-Saleh military units continue operations against protestors in Taiz and opposition tribesmen north of the capital.

Photo Credit: Sallam 

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Paul Leuck

Paul is a Master's degree candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where he specializes in international economics and Middle East studies. He previously worked as a language school administrator in Yemen and has also evaluated USAID international development programs in Yemen, Russia, and multiple sub-Saharan African countries. Other interests include cheesecake, Notre Dame football, and throwing shade at overblown internet outrage.

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