Plainclothes government supporters opened fire on protestors in Yemen’s capital Sana’a on March 18, killing fifty people and prompting President Ali Abdullah Saleh to declare emergency law and dissolve his cabinet. As BPC’s report, Fragility and Extremism in Yemen (2011), lays out in detail, the perennially fragile country has been plagued by violence, civil unrest and unpopular government institutions long before massive demonstrations that began in January. However, last Friday could prove a turning point in the struggle for the country. Because Yemen is also a safe haven for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and because it affects the security of Saudi Arabia and the Bab el Mandeb, any watershed moment is of critical importance to the United States.
Deep-seated political and economic grievances, spurred on by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, impelled Yemen’s young and unemployed multitudes into the streets of major cities across the country. An adept practitioner of divide-and-conquer politics, Saleh has tried to cordon off the insurrection from his regime’s bastions—security services, loyal tribal sheikhs and a pliant parliament—by resorting again to bribery and vague reform promises. He has also continued to suppress armed rebellion by secessionists in the south, Houthi insurgents in Sa’dah in the far northwest and AQAP across multiple governorates. Until last week, Sana’a was largely spared such bloodshed—even as notable tribal and political leaders resigned or defected to the growing crowd of protestors—in part because most security personnel and regime allies hail from the same tribal confederations as the demonstrators in Sana’a.
Whether or not the government is implicated in the shootings, the aftermath of Friday’s events is clear: Saleh’s political survival is more tenuous now than at any point in his troubled thirty-two-year reign. The parliamentary umbrella opposition group (Joint Meeting Party) officially took to the streets for the first time, joining the protestors in their demand that he step down and killing his efforts to co-opt a primary source of dissent. As security forces deployed to uphold emergency law, key military commanders effectively have mutinied by announcing their intention to protect the demonstrators.
Yemen is already beset by three major internal conflicts. The prospect of another—this one at the core of a regime that has held the country together, however imperfectly, for three decades—is both highly troubling and inherently unpredictable. The well-stocked Yemeni Army bifurcated once Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar joined the calls for Saleh to step down, with battle-tested Sa’dah veterans from the 1st Armored Division arraying throughout Sana’a against the elite regime security forces of the Republican Guard. The loyalties of most officers and conscripts in the military and security services appear to still be up in the air, as are the allegiances of many tribal sheikhs embedded in the regime’s patronage networks. It also remains to be seen how willing Yemenis of all stripes are to take up arms as the current situation unfolds; there are nearly three firearms for every man, woman and child in the country.
Whatever the eventual outcome of this power struggle, the near-term implications for the United States are critical. Internecine warfare could bolster the security vacuum in which AQAP and pirates thrive, and visit further hardship on a highly alienated and afflicted populace. Southern separatists and Houthi rebels could ratchet up armed opposition to Sana’a, increasing the potential for civil war (both Saleh and al-Ahmar previously have used heavy hands against these groups). Such conflicts might pull an already-beleaguered Saudi Arabia deeper into the country—as happened in the 1930s, 1960s, 1994 and 2009—and threaten the major oil transit chokepoint between Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Should this slide toward state failure continue, U.S. counterterrorism, energy security and regional security policies in the greater Middle East would be dealt a serious blow. Moreover, this would make it even more difficult to enact and sustain the significant political and economic assistance and reforms needed to help stabilize Yemen.
Ruhe is a co-author of the 2011 report, Fragility and Extremism in Yemen.