I know you are all focused on Egypt at the moment, and for good reason, but I asked Dana Stuster, another intern here at CNAS with some experience in the Middle East, to write something for the blog on alternatives to Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. Just trying to get ahead of the curve. Take it away, Dana:
On January 24, President Salih addressed the Yemeni people and offered the compulsively quotable wisdom that Yemen is not Tunisia (for the reasons why, see Brian O’Neill’s work over at “Always Judged Guilty,” among others). But if Yemen is not Tunisia, or Egypt for that matter, then what is it?
To begin with, Yemen is not on the cusp of a revolution. It’s easy to get caught up in the heady events in Tunisia and Egypt, but Yemen just does not have the socio-economic preconditions for the types of revolts seen in the past two weeks. Even if something were to take hold, the opposition movement in Yemen is incredibly fragmented. It’s unclear just what the mix of ideologies has been in the protests in Yemen these last few weeks, but even if the movement could depose Salih, there’s no clear outcome. If anything follows, it will begin with a motley assortment of groups jockeying for influence – a volatile cocktail of religious and political factions. In all likelihood, though, they won’t get that far.
Salih will stay in office, at least in the near term. The pressing issue in Yemeni politics remains, as it was before the constitutional amendment was proposed, who will be president after his term ends in 2013. Will Salih run in 2013, despite issuing a statement that he won’t? It wouldn’t be the first time Salih announced he would withdraw from the presidency only to run come election season. He may even try to consolidate his power and stay in office by force. In response to the protests, he has raised monthly salaries for Yemen Armed Forces soldiers, a hedge against disloyalty and an investment in the future stability of his regime.
Or maybe this time he’ll step down and allow a new president. Even if he doesn’t, Salih is now 78-years-old; it’s past time to start thinking about the looming succession crisis in Yemen. In his address on Monday, Salih called rumors that he would name his son Ahmed his successor, “rude.” The statement does not mean that Ahmed, who is commander of the Republican Guard and the subject of speculation that he is being groomed for the executive office, won’t choose to run on his own. The second most powerful man in the country and leading commander of the Yemen Armed Forces, Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, has hinted that he won’t tolerate Ahmed becoming president. Al Ahmar has waited in the wings for all of Salih’s now-32-year term. He may run, or he might just cross the Rubicon and take the government. A third possibility would be a candidate from the Islah Party, perhaps Hamid al Ahmar. Power would remain concentrated in the same cabal of northern tribesmen – al Ahmar is the leader of the Hashid Tribal Federation, to which Salih and B Gen al Ahmar also belong – but with a different slant. While Salih has been fairly secular (by the standards or Middle Eastern governments) and intent on walking a balance beam between northern and southern, Shi’a and Sunni, and various tribal divides, Islah is composed primarily of conservative converts to Wahabbi Salafism. One of the patriarchs of the party is Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani, a peculiarly Yemeni institution in and of himself (aside from his hennaed beard, he is known for being a financier of al Qaeda and is accused of having a hand in the attack on the USS Cole). B Gen al Ahmar financed jihadis as well, arranging the travel for Yemenis to go to Afghanistan (first to fight the Soviets, then the Americans) and Iraq.
There are no good options in Yemen. As long as Salih retains his tenuous hold on power, the United States will be forced to deal with an autocrat, but then again, he always has been. Yemenis call their brand of politics “decorative democracy,” a façade which was only instated in an effort by Salih to regain American aid. Now, though, Yemen is an integral part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts and cannot be neglected as it has been in the past. Salih knows that his place is assured – it’s the confidence that allowed him to propose the abolition of term limits in the first place. The State Department will have another couple years of the same fair-weather ally they’ve come to know, but it will only postpone an inevitable transition. None of the candidates to succeed Salih seem conciliatory to U.S. interests, and it will not be enough to hope that Yemen’s coming resource crisis will force the prospective Islah Party government or al Ahmar military regime into a dialogue. The United States needs to start making friends now, especially outside of Sanaa, with local and tribal leaders. The tribes are a constant in Yemen; the government, after a 30-some year hiatus, is about to be a lot less so.