What’s next for Yemen?

The way to post-Saleh unity in Yemen may be through less centralised state control, not more.

Ali Abdullah Saleh
In February, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over power to Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi [REUTERS]

Amherst, MA – Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh is finally gone, but the question of “what next” remains tied to old understandings of what plagues the country. Yemen is a weak state, we are repeatedly told, which faced two strong challenges even before the outbreak of the Arab uprisings: 1) The secession impulses of southerners fed up with the repressive northern-dominated regime; 2) The armed conflicts from the northern Houthi rebels against the regime, ongoing since at least 2004.

Yemen’s fractured condition poses particular problems in imagining how it can exist harmoniously when viewed through the worldwide idealisation of the strong consolidated state. Some scholars and pundits have suggested that the nation-state system is in decline. It is true that international organisations and multinational corporations may be gaining strength, but strong centralised states still dominate.

The neoliberalisation of the global economy – in which states are more aggressively advancing global trade and foreign investment – has not led to a decline in state power. On the contrary, newer and more pervasive forms of securitisation have been needed to promote those programmes, with regimes remaining central to those efforts. In such a global context, countries such as Yemen make the international community nervous, because the centralised state appears to be fragile – or even failing.

 The Stream – What is in store for Yemen after Saleh?

But, as those who scrutinise Yemen closely understand, that regime has done best when not attempting a complete centralisation of control over all of its territory. Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime – which may have finally ended with his departure from Yemen – survived for decades through a combination of clientelism and coercion. But it would be a mistake to imagine him as a brilliant manager and manipulator of diverse interests.

Closer to the truth is that Yemen has survived because so many forces in the country wanted and needed it to survive – despite Saleh’s ineptitude. He seems to have succeeded only in preserving his rule, but his efforts to exert control over the whole of Yemeni territory have been nothing short of a failure. Indeed, in some northern, eastern and southern provinces, military officers are virtually confined to their outposts and can operate only with the approval of local authorities.

So with Saleh’s departure, what next? The United States has been concerned with Yemen, primarily because of the reported presence of al-Qaeda in the country. Ironically – and perhaps not coincidentally – the presence of al-Qaeda-linked movements has reportedly grown with Washington’s increased interventions there. Washington’s strategies somehow continue to be shaped by a grossly outdated anti-terrorism narrative, although, with the Arab uprisings, it seems open to adopting some other narrative, as long as it can largely control it.

That is, the US wants a strong centralised state that can crush al-Qaeda operatives, exert control over the country, rein in tribal and other rebels, and provide added security to trade transiting the Red Sea. In an era of worldwide imagining of new political futures, Yemen’s problems should not be yet again reduced to questions of security and stability.

This security focus is a function of perceived US interests, not the Yemeni people’s interests (though of course, one should also question whether Washington’s interests are the interests of the people of the US). And a security focus is also likely to be counter-productive.

The past year has demonstrated that what Yemenis really want is a pluralist system, in which strong regional needs and identities (which are not only religious or tribal) are addressed through a looser, federalised state system. In fact, Yemenis have been asking for precisely such a system for more than a decade.

Followers of Yemen in the early 1990s will not be surprised by the boldness of Yemenis in demanding a truly representative, democratic government. Those voices were hijacked and contained for two decades by a regime that advanced state centralisation, along with the systematic exclusion of opposition voices.

The GCC plan, however, has maintained power in the hands of the regime, via control of the executive and the military, even while diverse populations throughout the country continue to express demands ranging from increased autonomy, to an end to endemic corruption, to full-on democracy. 

If Yemen is to enter a new phase, it must be through the creation of a new parliament that is more broadly representative. As it is, the GCC agreement includes no provisions to broaden participation or combat corruption, despite those being major demands of many protesters.

Elites connected to Saleh’s regime retain dominance in the assembly. As a result, the sitting parliament, which has little interest in fundamental change, is overseeing the “transition” process. For their part, GCC countries also have little interest in building a democratic Yemen or in advancing good governance. 

Meanwhile, Yemenis have not ceased in their protests. Sit-ins, marches, work stoppages and all manner of demonstrations continue throughout the country, and not only in the capital, Sanaa. The Houthi rebels in the north have, to some extent, sought to refashion themselves as anti-government protesters, and have periodically joined other protesters in the capital. Southerners have learned that not all northerners support Saleh’s regime, a realisation that seems to have put secessionist plans on hold.

The country has long been among the world’s poorest, but the situation has deteriorated in recent months. Some southern regions are experiencing full-on famine and the water depletion is terrifying. The country is headed for a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions and hundreds of thousands are already internally displaced.

And while the regime is regrouping, large parts of Yemen are already under localised rule, having had to manage themselves for years in the face of the regime’s ineptitude. Yemenis are not half as terrified as Washington of a decentralised Yemen; they have been familiar with the waxing and waning of central state authority for decades. 

For Yemen to move forward, the dialogue needs to include more than the old regime discussing a transition with input from old monarchs from the Gulf. A new era for Yemen needs to be truly inclusive, unified but not highly centralised.

Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge 2006).