Yemen Tribes Destroy Dream of Civil Society

When Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh left the country for emergency treatment in Saudi Arabia, anti-government protesters went into the streets and demanded a transitional government. However, it is neither the protesters nor the government who are determining the country’s future. The tribes have begun to call the shots, despite earlier indications that they had lost their political force.

Army units loyal to the president have been engaged in pitched battle with tribesmen. Fighting broke out in al-Hasaba area in Sana’a over Sadeq al-Ahmar, the Sheikh of Sheikhs of the Hashid tribe, a powerful tribal coalition. Peaceful protesters were not involved in the clashes.

A tribe is best described as a socio-political grouping based on shared interests. A Yemeni researcher (name unknown) wrote in the 1980's that Yemen tribalism continued due to the government's failure to provide for its people. Some 30 years later, the situation has not changed. However, introducing a welfare state, one of the protesters’ demands, could put an end to tribalism's more violent, destructive aspects.

Non-tribal protesters — the majority — celebrate the role of protest in building a new civil society. Many tribes put down their weapons and participated in peaceful marches as Yemeni citizens. It appeared that the revolution would achieve what 33 years of Saleh’s rule could not, or would not, do: Break the back of Yemen's tribal power.

If Yemen’s tribes were simply cultural, rather than political, many would benefit from the protests; Yemenis could turn to the law, rather than guns, to solve disputes and myriad instances of injustice. One of the key criticisms of Saleh's regime is that it catered to a few key tribes and left the majority starving and impoverished. Thus, Yemenis were unsurprised when Saleh provoked tribal conflict, in which revenge killings led to spiraling violence and disorder. Each Friday, after all, he warned his supporters of impending chaos.

As violence erupted, peaceful protesters stood aghast and incapable of responding; Yemen’s civil society might have been a pipe dream. The youth find themselves faced with two stark options: Take up arms against what remains of the Saleh regime or allow the tribes to fight on their behalf.

The first option would undermine the revolution's peaceful principles, while the second will lead to another regime hobbled by reliance on armed tribesmen. The latter is what Saleh wanted when he said, "I will leave Yemen as I found it." Alternatively, the youth must seize the opportunity to prove their new civil society's strength and form a government strong enough to break the cycle of conflict. Given their remarkable achievements in the last three months, they might just be able to achieve this.

Photo Credit: urbancn

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