The crucible of Yemen

The two opposing forces of unity and disunity are helping to shape the future of the struggle against Saleh in Yemen.

Yemeni President Saleh Visits Germany
Saleh’s attempts to squash the uprisings in Yemen are aimed at preventing an unceremonious ousting, such as those of Mubarak of Egypt, or Ben Ali of Tunisia [GALLO/GETTY]

There has never been a single Yemen, and maybe there will never be one. What is nonetheless exceptional about the revolt engulfing Yemen is that it represents a united stand, a cry for freedom and dignity. Thus it echoes the cry for freedom in Tunis’ Habib Bourguiba Avenue and Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

However, Yemen presents a prominent specificity; it’s a unity-disunity pairing that shapes and re-shapes the current moment of popular empowerment, constantly stirring the politics concocted within the Yemeni crucible.

Note that Yemenis feel insulted by the brand of nepotism and dynasticism engineered by Saleh and his ilk. The fissiparous forces which Saleh controlled, kept in check or used to his own ends through cunning, money, and even violence, are today largely rallied against him.

He dropped them like hot potatoes when political expediency demanded it. Now they are returning the favour. In this, Saleh’s foes seem to be united.

The interplay of unity and disunity are responsible for both Yemen’s moment of popular empowerment and weakness, as far as democratic protest and change are concerned.

One Yemen, many Yemens

In every sense, Yemen is breathtaking. It is a quilt of colours, climes, landscapes, regions, sects, tribes, customs, ideologies, histories and identities. Anthropologists would have a field day exploring it. But not so if one approaches Yemen with a narrow political science set of lenses. The risk to miss the “Archimedean point” – wherever that might be – is greatest here.

If the state is a necessary evil, then nowhere is that truer than in Yemen, so parachuting Western-type statism on such a rich human geography is a travesty of diversity. In theory, with such richness, states like Yemen (which is also true of Lebanon, Syria and Sudan) have in heterogeneity a natural platform for mapping out plural polities with much potential for greater representation of differences.

Prior to the modern nation-state, these differences mastered the art of self-representation in politics and the battlefield as much as in poetry, and other types of self-constructive narratives.

Instead, those with least representation, once empowered, treat the state as a kind of makhazan [“treasury”] and compensate incapacity to regulate or distribute democratically with coercive capacity. Rulers end up possessing politics, and with it, the state – an end for which they are prepared to kill and get killed. Here, one can note the narrative along these lines by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf in Syria, and the deeds of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.

Diversity, as shall be explained below, is turned into a resource – particularly to divide and rule, as Saleh as shrewdly done in order to delay his retirement from a 33 year career at the helm. Since the rise of “people power” in February, his nation’s diversity has also been used to avoid or delay, through vintage Saleh manoeuvring, a disgraceful ouster, a la Ben Ali or Mubarak.

Like them, he has been inebriated by longevity in power.

‘I am the state’

Condensing the many “Yemens” into a single Yemen in the name of national unity, order, stability, and lawfulness has been one prominent modus operandi and a systematic narrative emblematic of how Saleh and co., with Western explicit and tacit approval, have taken power for granted, turning it into an art of self-preservation, not to mention self and tribal aggrandisement through dynastic and fiscal gerrymandering of Yemeni polity.

The president-imam, the president-general, the president-tribal chief, the president-exchequer and the president-despot all become embodied in a single figure. A single figure who has populated the concentric circles of power with kinship and kingship, and with bribery as well as thuggery.

“I am the state” has no Napoleonic lineage in this instance. There is no empire-building, no institutions, and no grandeur. There is only fear and crisis. Here “I am the state” is an unspoken rhetoric, the constructs of which are fear and crisis, literally the “rentierism” of despotic regimes.

Despots like Saleh have bought out time in power by “renting out” fear and crisis to domestic and external publics. Thus, legitimation and utility are invented for such despots to, supposedly, arrest the peril of Islamists, Shia, terrorists, the clones of bin Laden, the separatists, and all kind of anti-systemic conspirators.

Saleh has been president for so long – not thanks to positives – but because of supposed negatives: Saleh the bulwark against al-Qaeda, a choice between Saleh in power or the peril of north-south disunity; Saleh’s political mentoring or the abyss of the “state of nature” (supposedly dominated by Houthis and Iranians) for all Yemenis.

United we stand

More relevant to our story here is that a majority of Yemenis have organised and mobilised to replicate the ousting of Ben Ali and Mubarak, despite their own deployment of their parochial crises as political resources in their struggle against Saleh (or each other) and against monopoly of state resources by the Sanhan, the president’s clan.

Their moment of popular empowerment attests to the creative potential of unity within disunity – indeed, in spite of it. The seeds of the Yemeni uprising have been evident since mid-2007, when southern officers’ protests against illegal sackings were organised. By mid-2009, protests gained momentum in the southern provinces of al-Dhalah and Lahaj.

A rebellion not un-religious in nature was by then already fanning the flames of disobedience against the centre in the hills of the Sa’dah province in the north.

Whilst largely demonised, the seeds of the Houthi rebellion are sown in reactionary and defensive impulses. These reactionary and defensive impulses are a dynamic shared by all opposition groups, a dynamic that left Saleh not only like a denuded emperor, but also forsaken by vital allies and clients.

The Houthi rebellion’s roots lie in religious revivalism, primarily in reaction against Wahhabi-Salafi proselytisation, and, secondarily, against violence by a centre rarely sensitive to genuine grievances of marginalisation and representation.

Disunity as pluralism

It is no exaggeration to state that in Yemen, the notion of an “un-civil state” is not an oddity.

The rise of civil bodies and civic activism are partly responses to exclusionary tactics, violence, patronage- clientelism, nepotism and dynastic tendencies.

The movements and figures today rallied against Saleh’s reign all share a common consciousness of victimhood and marginalisation. Pluralism is a marker of the forces and voices forming the moral protest current that is today flexing people’s power from the heart of the struggle site, dubbed Sahat al-Taghyir (Transition Square).

Close allies, kinsmen and clients: a good example is the president’s own kinsman and comrade-in-arms, General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, abandoned Saleh. General Al-Ahmar had acted as Saleh’s “Minister of War”, assigned the explosive mission of fighting the Houthis.

His rebellion against his president and commander-in-chief is one way of settling old scores related to the six wars he commanded against the Houthis, but was never allowed to win. Al-Ahmar was not allowed the taste of military victory because the president had preferred to preserve the Houthis as enemies, a bargaining resource – internally and externally – plus an excuse to cling to power in the name of national security and unity.

Another client/ally who has, since 2009, allied himself with the Southern Movement is the Abyan-based Shaykh Tariq Al-Fadhly. He is a former Afghan fighter who fought alongside Saleh’s troops against the south in the 1994 war. That was when Saleh deployed former Afghan mujahidin for raison d’etat, as it were.

Formerly arch enemies, today the Islah Party (quasi Muslim Brotherhood) and the Houthis are united against Saleh, so are Yazidis, Sunnis and Salafis. This coalition-building dynamic boosts the five-year-old opposition forum known as Liqa’ al-Ahzab, giving a shared platform to Nasserists, Southern socialists, Yazidis represented by al-Haqq Party – and al-Islah, Saleh’s chief political partner since the 1994 defeat of al-Baydh and his Socialist Party.

Youth against despotism

The youth-based activism was made up of various organisations, such as the Revolt’s Youth and the Coalition of the Free Youth. This brand of urban activism has no single ideology, sect, party or region. It is a forum of a variety of struggles, united by the quest for democratic transition and rallied against Saleh.

Yemen oozes with youth mobilisable for taghyir [“change”, “transition”]. Note that it was the youth who were mobilised in the early 1990s by the late Sayyid Husayn Al-Houthi to protest against exclusion, and to contest uneven power through the Devout Youth Forum.

Today, there is a triangle of people power mapped out on the grounds of the Da’iri district. When denied by Saleh’s forces the right to camp on Sanaa’s own Tahrir Square, they literally demarcated the boundaries of empowerment on a different geography.

In shifting the terrain and the battle to the area bound by the University of Technology, the new university’s mosque and the University of Technology Hospital, the diverse youth movement has acquired a site of struggle where it is a majority, as well as obtaining the means to articulate terms of its own over how to spar with Saleh.

True, Yemen may be teetering on the brink. But the brink can be looked at in two ways: a brink in the sense of uncertainty or implosion, or the brink of a democratic invention of how to conduct politics and construct a democracy without the spent force that is Saleh.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.