Anti-Government Protests in Yemen: An Opportunity for Unity or a Catalyst for Further Unrest?


Since mid-January, Yemenis opposed to the government headed by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih have been taking to the streets in the capital of Sana’a and elsewhere demanding that he and his government step down. Protesters throughout Yemen were emboldened by the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11 and their numbers have subsequently grown in Sana’a, Aden, and, most notably, in Taizz. Since February 11, fourteen protesters have been killed across the country in battles with state security forces and pro-Salih demonstrators (al-Jazeera, February 23).

Salih has repeatedly warned Yemenis that he and his regime are all that are preventing Yemen from becoming another Somalia—a fractured state mired in tribal and religious conflict. While this is more hyperbole than fact, both the continuance of the regime and the fall of the regime may well result in increasing levels of inter-tribal conflict and increasing levels of conflict between northern and southern Yemenis. However, an orderly transition to an inclusive and freely elected government could bring about a new sense of unity and solidarity among Yemenis.

Renewed Promises of National Dialogue

President Salih, who has been in power for 32 years—first as the president of the Yemen Arab Republic (north Yemen) and then as the president of the post unification Republic of Yemen—has been slow to respond to the protesters’ demands. Salih’s initial response to the protesters was to label them all “anarchists” who were intent on destroying Yemen. Following the same script as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Salih also accused the protesters of being funded and organized by outside powers. However, as the protesters have grown in number, Salih has begun to moderate his response, and on February 20, he called for a national dialogue that he would oversee (Mareb Press, February 20). This follows his earlier move to preempt demonstrations by announcing that he would not run for the presidency in the 2013 elections, and that he would not hand over power to his son, Brigadier General Ahmed Salih.

Mohammed al-Sabri, a spokesman for the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Yemen’s coalition of opposition parties, announced that the JMP was opposed to renewed attempts at dialogue with Salih and his ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC) (al-Tagheer, February 21). Al-Sabri’s comments followed those of the influential cleric Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, who announced his support for a transitional government that would oversee elections within six months. Zindani’s call for a transitional government is particularly important given that Zindani, a senior member of the Islah party (Yemeni Congregation for Reform), was considered to be a close ally of Salih. There also seems to be some dissention within Salih’s ruling party—the GPC—from which twelve MPs have resigned in solidarity with the protesters (al-Tagheer, February 21).

Salih Marshals the Tribes

Like the imams before him, President Salih’s power and the longevity of his reign depend to a large extent on the support of the northern tribes, especially the seven tribes (Bani al-Harith, Hamdan, Bani matar, al-Haymatain, Sanhaan, Khawlan, Bani Hushaysh) whose territory encircles the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Following the outbreak of protests, Salih moved quickly to shore up support among and extract pledges of loyalty from tribal leaders across the north. Tribesmen loyal to Salih poured into Sana’a at the behest of their sheikhs and occupied Yemen’s Tahrir Square in order to keep anti-government protesters out. The government has set up tents for the men and is providing them with free qat (the mild stimulant consumed by many Yemenis) and food as well as wooden clubs. The tribesmen have prevented anti-government protesters from entering the square and have also fought with protesters in front of Sana’a University, where many of the anti-government protesters have erected tents.

Over the three decades of his reign, Salih has proved incredibly adept at balancing tribal powers against one another. The patronage system, a system in which sheikhs and sub-sheikhs are paid for their support with cash and favors, is largely responsible for keeping Salih in power. Over the last five years, as Yemen’s oil production has fallen and aggregate state revenues have decreased, the Salih regime has been forced to make cuts to the once generously funded patronage system. The reduction in funding for the patronage system was preceded and followed by attempts by the Salih regime to erode much of the traditional power of the tribes and their sheikhs. The transition from the soft tactics of the patronage system to one in which the central government tries to assert its authority, often through military means, has cost Salih much of the support he once enjoyed.

With the outbreak of protests, Salih fell back on the patronage system with renewed promises of favors and cash in exchange for pledges of loyalty. The President held and continues to hold meetings with the heads of the various northern tribes in an attempt to shore up further support. However, support for Salih is not nearly as broad based as it once was. Even among the seven tribes the surround Sana’a, once bastions of loyalty to the President, there are signs of growing divisions over whether or not to continue to support the Salih regime—most notably among the Khawlan and Hamdan tribes. Many tribal leaders, even among those tribes who have pledged their loyalty to Salih, are quite happy to see his authority and legitimacy under attack. Salih is viewed by many tribesmen in the north as having overstepped his authority and as having attempted to usurp traditional tribal powers.

While Salih has clearly managed to secure the loyalty of many tribes, other tribes have declared that they support the protesters and have called for the removal of Salih and his government. Sheikhs from the powerful and well-armed Murad and Jadaan tribes based in Marib and the al-Ans tribe based around Dhamar have all reportedly said that they stand with the protesters. The sheikhs of these tribes have also threatened to send men to protect the protesters (Mareb Press, February 19). This is a potentially dangerous development that could lead to widespread conflict between tribes.

The North-South Divide

Salih’s calls for tribal support and the regime’s use of tribesmen in Sana’a to suppress protests are almost certain to increase the already considerable tensions between north and south Yemen. Many Yemenis in south Yemen, where there is a growing secessionist movement, feel that they are already dominated by tribesmen from the northern tribes who benefit from their close connections with President Salih. Members of the Southern Mobility Movement, an umbrella organization for a number of groups focused on issues in the south, frequently characterize the Salih regime as an occupational government. They cite the fact that almost all the men who hold important government positions, including the governors of the southern governorates, are drawn from either members of the President’s tribe, the Sanhaan, or other northern tribes.

The tribal divide between what was north and south Yemen runs deep. In much of northern Yemen, tribal identity and tribal affiliations form the basis for society and culture. This stands in stark contrast with the south where tribal customs and affiliations were actively suppressed by the former government of south Yemen, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). The dominance of the northern tribes in both the Yemeni government and economy is one of the primary reasons given by members of the Southern Mobility Movement for the need to secede.

The city of Taizz, now the epicenter of anti-government protests, has historically been part of northern Yemen. However, the same divide between the politically and economically dominant northern tribes and those from weak tribes or those with no tribal affiliation that has characterized much of the unrest and discontent in the south is coming into focus in Taizz as well. The tribe and tribal life play less of a part in politics and daily life in Taizz and the surrounding areas. While the region is one of the richest agricultural areas in Yemen, it has suffered disproportionately from the moribund economy. Unemployment in Taizz, despite a high concentration of university graduates there, is far higher than unemployment in Sana’a where many residents—due to their tribal connections—can count on jobs.

The absence of armed loyal tribes in the south means that Salih’s ability to suppress protesters there is limited to the use of the military whose officer and NCO core are largely drawn from tribes traditionally loyal to the President. However, the enlisted men are drawn from across Yemen, including large numbers from the areas around Taizz. There are reports that members of the army and security services are joining anti-government protesters in the city of Taizz, where the number of protesters reportedly reached one hundred thousand on February 19 (Mareb Press, February 19; al-Tagheer, February 21).

A Power Vacuum

President Salih’s warnings about the chaos that might follow his departure are not without some basis in fact. Before the start of anti-government protests, Yemen was already a country riven with divisions from the Houthi-led rebellion in the north to widespread unrest in the south. Yemen’s opposition parties and the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), have been slow to respond to the protesters. Much like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, most of the opposition seems to have been caught off guard by the widespread demonstrations. While statements from the JMP seem to indicate that it is now standing with the protesters, the JMP itself is an unwieldy coalition of groups who have conflicting agendas and platforms.

Despite rampant corruption and a lack of real democratic reforms, Salih and his government have managed to hold Yemen together. This is a fact that has not gone unnoticed by both those who support him and those who favor his removal. Many Yemenis are keenly aware of the potential dangers of a Yemen without Ali Abdullah Salih. A question that is being repeatedly asked during qat chews across Yemen is: what and who comes after Salih? The general officers of Yemen’s army are almost all from Salih’s tribe, the Sanhaan, and most of the junior officers are from tribes that are allied with the Sanhaan. It is highly unlikely that it could ever oversee a transition similar to what may be happening in Egypt.

Additionally, in the last seven years, two of Yemen’s most powerful tribal leaders, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, and Sheikh Mujahid Abu Shawarib of the Hashid Kharif, have died. The two men, who both fought on the side of the Republicans in the Royalist vs. Republican civil war, were pillars of stability in northern Yemen where their authority was rarely questioned. Both have been replaced by their eldest sons: Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar and Sheikh Jibran Mujahid. Neither Sheikh Sadeq, who has no heirs, nor Sheikh Jibran commands the authority that their fathers did.

The al-Ahmar family, one of Yemen’s wealthiest and most powerful, appears to be divided in its support for Salih. Hamid al-Ahmar, Sheikh Sadeq’s brother, is an outspoken critic of the government and has said that Salih’s warnings about chaos and civil war are propaganda. Hamid al-Ahmar, who is also a leading member of Islah, enjoys considerable support in the city of Taizz but his popularity among the northern tribes is less certain. Hamid al-Ahmar, like Sheikh Jibran Mujahid, lacks the hard won credentials of his father who was revered as a fighter and leader. Both men, who are highly successful businessmen, are viewed by many in the north as having neglected tribal affairs in favor of financial gain.

In the south, the Southern Mobility Movement has become increasingly well organized and is able to draw thousands of southerners to the protests and strikes that it organizes. However, the movement suffers from a lack of clearly defined leadership and its appeal is limited to southerners.

As yet, no leader or party has arisen that could bring some unity to Yemen. Many Yemenis are quick to point out that they have no figures like Amr Moussa (the President of the Arab League and a potential candidate for the Egyptian presidency) that could act as a senior statesman and bring the country together. However, this certainly does not mean that such a person or party will not be defined as the protests continue.

An Opportunity for Reconciliation and Unity?

As the anti-government protests have grown in number and spread across the country, a nascent sense of solidarity has begun to develop. Statements from the nebulous leadership of the Southern Mobility Movement indicate that it and its member organizations would suspend their calls for secession if Salih steps down. In the northern city of Sadah, which is largely controlled by Houthi rebels and which was the scene of a protracted on and off war (2003-2010) between Houthi rebels and government forces, thousands have reportedly joined anti-government protests. A spokesman for the Houthis stated that they are protesting in solidarity with the protesters in Sana’a (News Yemen, February 19; Mareb Press, February 22). Further statements from the Houthis suggest that they may be willing to be part of a unity government.

Transition to some kind of unity government would be an opportunity for Yemen to set aside many of the seemingly intractable differences that act as catalysts for conflict in both the south and the north. The Salih regime can be blamed for many of the country’s woes, in many cases fairly, and in that way its removal could act as a kind of reset for negotiations between the country’s political and tribal groups. Given the deep divisions in Yemen and the multiplicity of entrenched interests, this is most likely an optimistic view of how a transition may play out.


Yemen faces numerous severe challenges from resource shortages to militant Islamists. All of these challenges will be exacerbated and made more intractable if the country’s leadership does not pursue meaningful reforms directed at transitioning to an inclusive fairly elected government. President Salih and his regime no longer have the resources to buy the loyalty and bargaining power that they once enjoyed. The Salih regime does have some genuine support within the country, mainly in the north. In terms of repression, Salih’s regime is not comparable to that of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Libya’s Mu’ammar Qaddafi. His regime, especially in the north, has always been tempered by Yemen’s well-armed populace. Salih could retain control of the north through force by making use of the army and loyal tribal levies, but the security situation in the southern Yemen, which has already deteriorated markedly in the past year, will continue to worsen. An upsurge in unrest and even civil war are both possibilities if the Salih regime falls; however, if the Salih regime does not respond in a meaningful and timely way to the protesters’ demands for reforms and elections, continued unrest and war are almost certainties.

Michael Horton is an independent analyst who specializes in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.  He is a frequent contributor to The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor publication. He also writes for Jane’s Intelligence Review, Intelligence Digest, Islamic Affairs Analyst, and the Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Horton studied Middle East History and Economics at the American University of Cairo and Arabic at the Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies in Yemen. Michael frequently travels to Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia.