Politics in Yemen has always been a violent affair. Two of its four presidents have died unnaturally—one in a hotel room surrounded by drugs and prostitutes; his successor, suddenly and absurdly, by an exploding briefcase. The next man to take office, a young tank commander named Ali Abdullah Saleh, was not expected to fare much better.
He did, though, and is approaching his thirtieth year in power. He survived and, through his intimate knowledge of Yemen’s tribal politics, consolidated his rule. He oversaw the unification of his country with the formerly socialist South Yemen, and then crushed the south in a civil war. He never fully expanded his government’s writ over the chaotic, tribal north, but he stayed in power and kept his country together better than anyone could have predicted.
Until now. President Saleh faces three separate rebellions: A tribal, sectarian battle in the north, economic and social riots in the south, and a pervasive enemy in a younger and more brutal generation of al-Qaeda. These are happening while Yemen faces crushing demographic and natural pressures, from its exploding population to its dwindling water supplies to its aging leadership. Saleh has held his country together, but the fragile, violent quilt-work that makes Yemen is now threatening to come quickly apart.
The Believing Youth of the North
Tribal rebellions have never been rare in Yemen, but the al-Houthi rebellion, now in its fourth year, seems to be a different, lingering animal. It has transformed itself from Saleh’s persistent headache into a long and catastrophic war that has claimed thousands of lives and threatens the tribal and sectarian balance which the president has meticulously massaged over the years.
The rebellion started in 2004 when Hussein Badr al-Houthi, a shaykh of the Zaidi sect of the Shiite branch, proclaimed that Saleh’s government had become too aligned with the United States and Israel. Longing to reestablish the Zaidi Imamate (1918-1962), al-Houthi led his Shabab al-Mu’mineen (Believing Youth) into battle. This came after government crackdowns on the shaykh’s unlicensed mosques.
Shaykh Hussein Badr al-Houthi was killed in September of that year and was jointly replaced as commander by his son and son-in-law, while his father took the reins as spiritual leader. There were back-and-forth negotiations, stall tactics, cease-fires, and more battles over the years. The government accused the rebels of receiving aid and training from co-religionists in Iran, which may have been true or may have been a way for Saleh to link his domestic concerns with the broader Arab fear of the emerging “Shiite Crescent” (and thus to obtain more outside assistance). None of these allegations have been proven.
Then, on May 2, a motorcycle-borne bomb exploded in a mosque in Sa’ada, killing over a dozen people and wounding scores more (Yemen Times, May 5). Immediately, the violence began again as accusations flowed from both sides. More than 50 people were killed in a battle near the town of Dafaa (ArabianBusiness.com, May 5). Both sides in this war have accused the other of targeting non-combatants, with the Sa’ada governor claiming the al-Houthis “kill innocent people and set fire to their farms” (NewsYemen, May 5). This bombing, though, marked a new and spectacular level of violence.
Immediately, speculation rose as to the identity of the slaughter’s architect. Abd al-Malik al-Houthi—brother of Hussein Badr al-Houthi—was quoted as saying: “The renewed tension is due to the repeated aggressions of the army… which is using tanks and other weapons in unjustified operations” (ArabianBusiness.com, May 5). While he stopped short of saying the government planted the bombs, his calls for a fair and legitimate investigation leads one to believe he is not discouraging that speculation.
But this rebellion has hurt the Saleh government, and renewed fighting is not in its interests. Cynically, one could say that a planted bomb that looks like an al-Houthi attack would hurt the rebellion, but Saleh knows his country. The north has never fully accepted the government of Sana’a, and continued fighting only helps further delegitimize his regime. This leaves a previously unknown faction or al-Qaeda as suspects in the attack. This would be a difficult but not impossible operation for al-Qaeda given the security in Sa’ada. Their motivations for doing so will be dealt with below.
The Restless South
Civil wars rarely seem to happen along an east/west axis; similar climates help produce similar economies and ideas—it is typically when different regions are yoked together that violence is produced. So it is with Yemen. North and South Yemen have had different histories, colonial experiences, and economies. Though it seems antithetical to the romantic idea of an ancient, eternal Yemeni state, it could be argued that having two separate countries made more sense.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the socialist south, known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, was faced with a failed economy and little external support. It had also never recovered from a brutal internecine war of its own during the 1980s. So it turned toward the north, and unification with the Yemen Arab Republic.
Speeches of brotherhood were given; promises were made. But the speeches never translated into reality, as Saleh squeezed out southern politicians and attempted to make the south part of his extended patronage network. Eventually, in 1994, civil war broke out. Saleh used his superior army and, more importantly, veterans of the Afghan jihad to crush the godless south. Aden, which had been an open and secular city—where mini-skirts were far more popular than the hijab—fell under the harsh rule of victorious jihadis. It would be an exaggeration to say that Shari’a had been implemented, but the typical southern way of life had been disrupted .
Beside the difficulties of the new way of life, the south chafed in other ways. Its economy never improved and many blamed the north for lack of interest in helping out its rival. The influence of the jihadis was felt. Though it seems insignificant, the destruction of the city brewery marked a dramatic change of daily rhythm, and the buildings became cold and gray concrete hulks. More strikingly, terrorism began to hit the south, with both the al-Qaeda variety and homegrown groups such as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army influenced by returning jihadis.
Commodity shortages have been hitting the south, including a severe diesel shortage (NewsYemen, April 23). While these shortages intensified, dissatisfaction with a number of issues strengthened. In January of this year, citizens were killed during a riot protesting the lack of “rights and benefits” accorded to citizens of the south. The rally was held in Aden during the Forum for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, an attempt to get past the divisiveness of the civil war (al-Jazeera, January 13). Instead, it sharpened the divide. Youths complained they were not allowed into the army; army retirees claimed they were not getting their benefits (al-Jazeera, April 1). In April, hundreds were detained following a massive protest two days after a government soldier was killed (Yemen Times, April 8).
Perhaps most threatening of all was the re-entrenchment of old players and the reopening of old wounds. On April 8, the Yemen Times reported that demonstrators were in “Al-Dahle’s main street chanting ‘Get out, Colonialization,’ and ‘Revolution, Revolution South.’ ” Ominously, a former president of the south, Ali Naser Mohammed, signaled his approval of the riots, demonstrations and discontent (Yemen Observer, April 5).
It seems clearer than ever that the tenuous grafting of north onto south never really fit. It is far from too late to fix the situation—a little more aid, a more just hiring procedure and a reining in of Islamist interference would make southerners feel less colonized in their own country.
The Pervasive Threat
In the last year, a new generation of al-Qaeda has taken over from Yemen’s old guard. This group has been hardened by the battles in Iraq and shared experiences in prison. The leaders and primary soldiers escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006, and have since consolidated their own power while seeming driven to unravel Saleh’s.
Their first big blow was against Spanish tourists in July 2007. They have since attacked foreign and local interests, including the U.S. Embassy and the Customs Office (see Terrorism Focus, April 16). Al-Qaeda seems immune to the standard Yemeni tactic of negotiation and compromise that Saleh has used with the older generation. Though it seems contrary to ideas of justice to let the bombers of the USS Cole walk free, Saleh has to balance domestic concerns and local passions to avoid letting his country slip into the abyss.
But that seems to be the exact strategy of the hard new guard of al-Qaeda. They are working at undermining tourism revenue and shaking any faith people have in the government with attacks on foreigners and random violence against citizens. A recent statement proclaimed their desire to “control Yemen’s waterways” by organizing attacks on “commercial, tourist and oil tankers” (NewsYemen, April 30; Terrorism Focus, May 13). This will eat away at another source of revenue and further weaken Saleh.
In the Middle, Nearing the End
Ali Abdullah Saleh has held his country, and his office, for a staggeringly long time. But events seem to be swirling faster now. The history of Yemen is catching up with his efforts, and demography is working to accelerate these damning trends. Using jihadis to fight his secular war may have irretrievably poisoned unification. Buying time with northern tribal leaders allowed him to shift focus from sectarian discontent, which led to the al-Houthi rebellion. Making deals with al-Qaeda emboldened a new generation.
All of these decisions made sense at the time and even in retrospect one feels the hands of the government were tied. Governing Yemen is a series of ad hoc decisions, assuaging the immediate concern while punting other issues down the road. President Saleh is getting older, and a new generation of leaders is awaiting its turn. It is unknown whether new leaders will be able to save the waterless, booming population from fragmenting into a failed state. But now, near the end of his tenure, President Saleh has to make decisions to save his new/ancient country from both its short-term difficulties and the catastrophes that loom over the near horizon.
1. Joseph Kostiner, Yemen: The Torturous Quest for Unity, 1990-94, RIIA, London, 1996.<iframe src=’https://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none.