|Yemeni protesters are demanding the ouster of the country’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh [Reuters]|
Inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, thousands of Yemeni youth are continuing to call for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country for more than three decades.
The protesters may represent a new, educated generation but their protests are inspired by the old problems of widespread poverty, corruption and inequality and the deep sense that the long-entrenched regime of Saleh and his puppet government is unable to fulfill their aspirations.
While the protesters share similar motivations to those who dislodged presidents elsewhere, it is still far from clear whether Yemeni demonstrators will attain the same level of success. But what is certain is that Yemen’s political landscape is becoming as complicated as the country itself.
In the twists and turns of Yemeni politics, the past week has been particularly significant and the country’s complex tribal dynamics have been at the fore of the unfolding developments.
A key moment came when Hussein al-Ahmar, a chief in the Hashid tribal confederation – Yemen’s second-largest but most powerful tribal confederation – joined the protesters, promising to offer them protection from attack by regime loyalists.
Hussein al-Ahmar is the son of the late Abdullah al-Ahmar, the former leader of the Hashid, who as a longtime ally of the president was showered with the rewards and privileges Saleh has long utilised to maintain his grip on power.
Al-Ahmar announced his resignation from the ruling General People’s Congress at a rally, attended by members of the Hashid and Baqil – Yemen’s largest tribal confederation, in the northern Amran province – joining his brother, Hamid, an outspoken critic of the president’s policies, and in particular the appointment of Saleh’s relatives to top military positions, in the ranks of the opposition.
Saleh’s tactic of lavishing rewards upon tribal chiefs in return for their loyalty seems to be unravelling and the president is now harvesting the seeds of his unjust policies. But he responded firmly to the tribal challenge, stressing that the country’s armed forces would not hesitate to defend the security of the nation and vowing that he and his colleagues in the army would fight until the last drop of their blood is spilled.
Joining the revolution
The actions of the established opposition parties, however, seem to have pushed Saleh to soften his stance.
When the demonstrations began there was a wide gulf between the demands of the established opposition and those of the protesting youth. While those out on the streets of cities across the country wanted Saleh overthrown, the opposition leaders appeared to be in favour of negotiating with the president in the hope of securing concessions that might lead to more fundamental political reforms.
Despite these differences, the established opposition welcomed the leaderless street revolt from the sidelines.
But when the opposition threatened to join the protesters in their push to bring him down, Saleh showed a new-found willingness to negotiate. He ordered the formation of a government committee to establish dialogue with the protesting youth and declared his readiness to form a unity government with the opposition.
The president even convened a meeting with a committee of religious scholars who put forward eight points that they felt might halt the country’s descent into turmoil. Saleh accepted their recommendations, but there has, so far, been no response from opposition figures.
But, sensing that the revolutionary fervour sweeping the region might provide a golden opportunity, the opposition now seems unlikely to accept the offerings of the president and will, in all likelihood, respond by increasing their demands.
Far from wanting to negotiate, the opposition now seems to want to inject more momentum into the street protests – possibly motivated in part by a concern that tribal leaders might try to hijack the movement and use it purely for their interests.
The broader Yemeni population is more torn. While most resent the economic and political state of their country and would welcome a revolution, they are concerned that the ouster of Saleh could set off a domino effect that, in turn, would lead to more violence.
Few see a viable and charismatic alternative to Saleh who could be entrusted with running a tribal society in which literacy levels are low and weapons plentiful.
What unites everyone in Yemen – the president, the opposition and the broader population – is a concern about the post-revolutionary phase and what many see as looming threats.
On the one hand there is the separatist movement in the south of the country, where many complain that the Saleh regime has marginalised them and treated them as second class citizens. Although the movement would like to see the president toppled, it has not joined forces with the protesters. If Saleh were to fall, however, it seems certain that the separatists would use this as an opportunity to establish an independent state.
Then there is the threat posed by the Houthis in the northwest of Yemen, whose insurgency has flared sporadically over the past six years. Many Yemenis fear that this group would also seek to take advantage of any power vacuum ensuing from Saleh’s removal.
Dancing to a different tune
In conclusion, Saleh is in a very tenuous position, but the ball may still be in his field. Despite his autocracy, the president is widely perceived as a shrewd and patient leader – and he may, therefore, be the person best placed to stop the country descending into chaos.
He once likened ruling Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes”. With the protests growing stronger and opposition and tribal leaders lending their backing, the president, far from being obliged to stop dancing, must quickly learn some new steps and quicken his pace. He must not wait until the demonstrations have gained such momentum that any concessions he offers fail to meet the protesters’ demands. If he does not, his historical achievements, which culminated in securing the unity of the country, may be erased.
He must remove all of his family members from top military positions, restructure the army, declare a six-month transitional period, call for the formation of a unity government and, most importantly of all, be serious in pursuing his pledges. This would allow for a smooth transition of power and would be of benefit to the country and its people.
If this does not happen, chaos may reign. The protesting youth understand that their country is already reeling from internal conflicts, but they are currently convinced that the future cannot be worse than the present. And while they may recognise that their movement is not as inclusive as the one which ousted Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, they have faith that they can unite against a nepotistic regime that has plundered their resources and given them little but misery. Unfortunately, they may just be underestimating the risks.
Murad Alazzany is a professor in the department of English Studies at Sana’a University, Yemen. His main research areas are ‘the representation of Islam and Muslims in the Western media’ and ‘the political discourse of Islamic movements in the media’.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.