Political Consciousness in Yemen: Enough To Topple the Government?

AP Photo/Hani Mohammed
By Elisenda Ballesté

Very few observers would have thought that January’s revolts in Tunis would lead to the fall of President Ben Ali. Even fewer would have predicted the domino effect that Tunisian citizens would pass on to their fellow Muslims in the region. Yet, popular protests against the regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, and even Syria and Iran, quickly followed. This article focuses on Yemen, the poorest Arab country and one, like many other Middle Eastern countries, in which the President has remained in power for more than three decades.

Since 27 January 2011, thousands of Yemeni citizens have congregated in Sana’a to demand President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation. Like other leaders in the region, the president has taken measures to try to avoid the “Tunis effect”.

The Yemeni leader made a speech to his country’s Parliament, in which he proposed pay rises for both civilians and military, ordered 50 per cent tax cuts and demanded his government take full control on market prices. Furthermore, he seized the opportunity to state clearly that he will not run for re-election in 2013 and that he opposes hereditary power, affirming that he will not support his eldest son, Ahmed Saleh, taking over from him.

This was a surprising turn, given that in January the President asked the Parliament to approve the proposal he made in April 2010, for him to be made President of Yemen for life.

It is possible that if protests against Saleh continue, his power would be under serious threat. The country he has ruled for more than 31 years is on the brink of becoming a failed state; while he fights Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with US help, he tries to mollify the secessionists in the South and the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia movement, in the North. These ongoing rebellions seem likely to cause even more imbalance in the already fractured Yemeni state. Yet, an important factor to consider is the relatively limited political awareness of many of the Yemeni people. This fact was demonstrated on 3 February, the Yemeni “Day of Rage”. About 20,000 citizens joined in a chant to demand the president’s resignation. The peaceful protest had fizzled out by noon, as planned, which suggests that many average citizens, who are not actively part of the opposition groups, have not been motivated, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, to maintain a rebellion for more than a few hours, let alone for several days.

Moreover, various opposition groups have formed against the regime, but they have not reached any consensus. Some of them demand Saleh’s resignation, while others only want him to fulfill his promises.  The latter seems unlikely, since the President’s truthfulness has been doubted many times during his rule. A clear example was his declaration in 2006 that he would not run for elections and, shortly before the elections, not only ran but “surprisingly” won once more. Nonetheless, some analysts believe that this time he could be genuine; some others believe that this is simply a new strategy of the President, taken in order to appease his people, take advantage of the lack of consensus of the opposition groups and the low political consciousness of the Yemenis. Once the protests cease, he calculates that he will be able to continue his rule in the same manner that he has always had.

But this does not mean that the President may rest easy by making promises in the knowledge that they will be broken without any consequences. Analyzing further the Yemeni situation, what would really threaten the Saleh dictatorship are the groups with which he fights every day: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Houthis in the North, and the secessionists in the South. If all these three factions collaborate, they could force the President to resign. A union where the common objective would have to be the common enemy: Saleh. The President has fought  the challenges from  each of these groups individually, but never as a whole. Fighting all three fronts at the same time, with the same objective, would prove too difficult for the regime. Furthermore, if those groups were able to create a popular conscience among citizens emphasizing  the discrepancy between the wealth of the government and the poverty of the Yemeni people, of whom 40 per cent live on  less than US$2 a day, and the struggle to improve their salaries, health conditions and standards of living in general, it is possible that they would have the potential to create a popular citizen movement strong enough to topple the regime with which they have lived for more than 30 years.

Any of these two scenarios would present  difficult challenges for the West.  Although Yemen is the poorest country of the Arabian Peninsula, it is, nevertheless, of strategic importance in the region. If the people of the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula are strong enough to be able to overthrow their government, the consequences may be that  the citizens of richer countries take Yemen as an example and strengthen their own rebellions to overthrow  the governments of the great oil monarchies. This would cause political and social instability, but also international security challenges that would severely test the international system and, in particular, the United States of America.

The situation in Yemen is uncertain, as it is in every Middle Eastern country. Although every country in the region is different, their people share a religion, history and a popular consciousness. It remains to be seen whether these revolts will lead to a new political configuration in the region. 


Elisenda Ballesté is a Professor of Middle East Affairs and Director of International Relations at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, Puebla Campus. She is a Yemen specialist and member of the Research and Education Center for Latin America and the Middle East (CIDAM).


18 February 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed


Related Articles: 

Sarah MacRory, Understanding the Egyptian Stalemate

Silvia Colombo, The Tunisian Riots and the Risk of a Domino Effect