Foreign Policy Blogs

Yemen, 8 months and counting

Yemen’s popular uprising started on the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian’s revolution, in a movement now know as the “Arab Spring”. Just as Egyptians were celebrated the ouster of their dictator, Husne Mubarak, following weeks of mass protests, Yemenis gathered in solidarity near the Egyptian Embassy, wanting to express their joy.
The World watched amused, as only a few hundred men turned up, not understanding that this handful would turn into millions.

February 2011 was to mark the beginning of the Yemeni Revolution. From the shores of Aden to the northern mountains of Yemen, an entire nation rose against the Saleh, determined to put an end to their decades’ long rule.


The Youth Movement

Very much like its Egyptian and Tunisian counterpart, Yemen’s revolution started off as a movement, a popular uprising with no other aim than to oust it regime. And if indeed the revolutionaries called for democracy, it was the idea they were after rather than its political aspect.
With no leader and no political agenda, what the press dubbed the Youth Movement, took to the streets of Yemen clamming for freedom and demanding the immediate departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Protesters very quickly set up their headquarter at the University, renaming its square, “Change Square”. The area was soon transformed into a camping site, with tents sprouting everywhere.
From this point on, the Youth attempted to organize itself, looking for some outside support in a bid to strengthen its ranks, hoping that this show of force would deter the government from holding on to power any longer.
But as protesters marched their way through Sana’a, Taiz and Hodeidah, they were met by a rainstorm of bullets. Water cannons and gas canisters were launched at the crowds as they chanted “Peaceful, peaceful”, snipers were seen aiming at unarmed protesters. Taiz probably bore the worst of the government’s fury as Republican Guards were ordered to destroy the protester’s camp, killing some 200 men.
For weeks, Yemen bled. Then a shift occurred in the Revolution as other actors came into play.

The Political Opposition

Yemen’s political class was quick to recognize the power that protesters wielded as they saw cracks appear in the State apparatus. Aware that they could very well “miss the train” if they did not participate, politicians on all sides of the opposition voiced their support of the revolution, siding with the revolutionaries.
It is about this time, in March, that Yemen saw most of its diplomats, military officers and parliamentarians jump ship and defect from the regime. Most importantly, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Yemen’s most powerful military man and long standing ally of the regime, famously cut his ties with Saleh, denouncing his dictatorship.
Yemen’s political class then decided that although many of them had different views, often ideologically at odds with each other they stood a better chance at ousting the regime if they stood united. The Joint Party Meeting, known as the JMP or Opposition was born.
However, this political involvement did nothing but fragmentize the Youth Movement into political blocks, in essence weakening what started as a united popular movement.
“Change Square” became a perfect example of this division, on one side was al-Islah’s Youth led by Sheikh Sadeeq al-Ahmar and Sheikh Abdel-Mageed al-Zindani, a well-known cleric and alleged al-Qaeda supporter; on the other, stood the Independent Youth, itself cut down to various groups.
Unable to convene on one joint course of action, the revolution started to lose some its weight as the regime saw weakness in its hesitation.
The Youth Movement often also accused the JMP of having no popular mandate to negotiate on its behalf with Saleh’s government. To this day, the Youth refute the GCC proposal despite the JMP members having agreed to it back in May.

The Tribes

And if things were not complicated enough, the tribes got involved. It is important to understand Yemen’s intricate social and political structure in order to get a sense on things.
Being the millennia old country that it is, Yemen has remained entrenched in its tribal past, where Sheikhs are considered kings within their territories. President Saleh himself had had to ensure the tribes’ loyalty as he knew they held the key to the country’ stability.
But most importantly here, one needs to understand that when a tribe member is being threatened or worse killed, the whole tribe will demand reparation, often using violence as an incentive.
As protesters were being slaughtered in the squares, the tribes stepped in as to defend their own against the attacker, not willing to see their blood being spilled freely.
Everything changed when Sheikh Sadeeq al-Ahmar, leader of the Hasheed Confederation of tribes and probably Yemen’s most powerful man after president Saleh announced that he would defend the revolutionaries.
It is because he intervened that the government ordered the attack of his stronghold in Hasaba,a northern district of the capital, Sana’a. The government knows all to well that the Sheikh commands an army powerful enough to be a real threat, especially since he’s being backed up by defected General Mohsen.
So while protesters held their banners of peace, the tribes became their shields, brandishing their weapons against the state apparatus.

The Status Quo

The attack on the presidential palace in June brought the revolution to almost a complete halt. With president Saleh away in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the revolutionaries lost their footing, unsure what to do.
Political analysts actually claimed that Saleh’s presidency was saved by his departure. As he was recovering in the Kingdom his legitimacy as president was somewhat shielded.
Yemen has been stuck in this limbo for over 3 months, with the Opposition talking of “peaceful escalation” and the al-Ahmar warning of an armed conflict if the regime refused to budge, the country is forever waiting.
President Saleh’s TV appearances and his conflicted statements only made matters worse, throwing a blanket of darkness over an already complicated situation.
As the regime continues to maintain that a change in government could only take place through elections, while affirming that it is willing to negotiate within the parameters of the Constitution, both sides are gearing up for an armed conflict.
With Yemen being on the verge of humanitarian and economic crisis of vast amplitude, politicians and statesmen alike are letting the country disintegrate.



Catherine Shakdam
Catherine Shakdam

Although French by birth, my studies and my professional life led me to live for many years in the United Kingdom and in the Middle East.
Armed with a Master in Finance, a Bachelor degree in Psychology and 5 languages under my belt I managed to make my way through the maze of the Trading World of Wall Street, as an equity consultant. However, my interest for Politics and the Middle East gave me the necessary push to launch me as a "writer". Since then, I have voiced my opinions via my Blog and various publications such as the Middle East Post, the Guardian UK, and now Foreign Policy Association. I currently live in London.

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