Roadblocks to Revolution: Why Yemen Might Not be Next to Fall

Hosni Mubarak’s February 11 resignation revitalized a Yemeni protest movement that was losing momentum. What began as street demonstrations celebrating his fall turned into anti-government protests that have continued until now.

There are now two Sana’as: the area around the new campus of Sana’a University where most of the violent news of clashing protesters and small arms exchanges is produced; and everywhere else, where daily life continues as normal aside from extra check points. In which direction will Yemen go? A number of challenges currently prevent Yemen from joining the list of Arab revolutions.

Popular unity against the government characterized the revolutions in Tunisa and Egypt. The Yemeni population is not united in opposition, and this is the biggest obstacle facing calls for Saleh’s departure.

Reports indicate that president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government is paying supporters to demonstrate, but this does not mean the pro-government sentiment is manufactured. Some with whom I've spoken genuinely favor the president. Others, while disapproving of his rule, view the most obvious replacement from the opposition, Hamid al-Ahmar of the Islamist Islah party, as a poor alternative. Until now, a groundswell in popular unrest similar to that which turned Egyptian protests into an Egyptian revolution has not materialized.

Second, “Stability and Security” are not simply slogans tossed around by government officials trying to drum up support. With 60 guns for every 100 persons (second only to the United States), Yemenis know that reform via revolution will result in bloodshed. Some with whom I've spoken call for change no matter the consequences, but for others change is not worth the anticipated cost in lives.

Third, protesters are divided in their demands. While anti-government protesters agree on the need for change, they disagree on whether change means governmental reform or Saleh’s immediate resignation. More significantly, the recent unrest has emboldened calls for secession in Aden, a demand that may be too drastic for protesters in Sana’a to merge with their own.

Lastly, the political opposition is invested in the current system. Saleh uses a patronage system to incorporate opposition leaders and leading tribal sheikhs into his government. Anyone who throws his weight behind the opposition too strongly risks political isolation should Saleh remain in power. Accordingly, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of opposition parties, has stated its openness to reentering national dialogue with the General People's Congress (GPC). This indicates that the political opposition will attempt reforms through existing institutions, not revolution. That said, the current anti-government protests are not party-sponsored, and it is unclear whether the university students, who represent the majority of protesters, will accept the legitimacy of reforms achieved through dialogue. Until now, protests in the street have not grown strong enough to convince opposition leaders to risk calling for more drastic changes.

Revolutions cannot be forecast. Quite a few competent analysts offered rational reasons why “Egypt is not Tunisia,” only to be proven wrong days later. Stronger protests in the cities of Taiz and Aden suggest that if there were to be a revolution, it would originate there. However, the view from Sana’a suggests that reform will be achieved through existing political institutions. With Yemen’s oil revenues projected to drop to zero by 2017, Saleh knows that reform of his petrol-dependent patronage system is inevitable. He is smart enough to attempt reforms now, knowing he will be financially forced to do so in the near future.

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