Originally published June 2009
The Yemeni regime is in crisis. The oil revenues that sustain it are plummeting, and opposition to its rule is increasing. Protests have gained momentum, and a common anti-regime narrative has emerged between actors as diverse as southern secessionists, northern insurgents, jihadis, and average citizens. Protestors on both sides of the pre-unification border decry the price rises on essential commodities, high unemployment, the paucity of government services, corruption, and the lack of equality between citizens. These are grievances that one might expect would play to the advantage of the country’s main formal opposition group, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of five parties that spans an array of ideological positions from the Yemeni Socialist Party to the Islamist Islah party.
When the JMP successfully pushed to delay the April 2009 elections for two years — with the goal of implementing electoral reforms that level the political playing field — the coalition’s leadership claimed a major victory against the regime. However, in the absence of substantive grassroots engagement, popular discontent is rapidly expanding beyond the Party’s sphere of influence. By neglecting to build a solid grassroots support base and provide an alternative to the regime, the JMP has little to offer the people other than the ability to add another voice to the growing chorus against the government.
This essay will make three points: that the JMP remains an elite entity that operates within the state-sponsored patronage system; that support for the coalition on the Yemeni street is not as high as many of its leaders profess; and that this is compounding the dangers of the political vacuum within which no alternative leadership is emerging other than radicals from outside the system.
Centralization and Elite Mandate
The JMP’s central leadership implicitly conceives the purpose of the coalition as being a mechanism to lobby the government for greater concessions, rather than as a means of gaining power or compelling change through the weight of its supporter base. The structure of the JMP is strongly geared toward elite, lobby-style politics.
The coalition rightly perceives that within the norms of Yemen’s centralized patronage system, the most immediate benefits are likely to come from negotiating directly with the regime. This is because the system is so unequal and so indisposed toward the creation of alternative power centers. The presence of alternative voices is usually acceptable — the presence of different power bases is not.
Since the last elections in 2006, the JMP obsessed over the “dialogue” (read: negotiation process) that it pursued with the regime, which aimed to make the 2009 elections freer and fairer. The regime astutely, and ruthlessly, seized upon this focus and worked to distract the JMP from other more relevant political issues through long delays and false promises about what might ultimately be conceded during the dialogue process.
Intentionally or otherwise, the JMP framed itself throughout the dialogue as the opposition, rather than a shadow government or even a group that was generating actionable alternatives to the government. This left the coalition in a position where it was essentially requesting reforms that would increase its room to maneuver but that the JMP was not in a position to demand because it had alienated a considerable portion of its potential support base by focusing on the dialogue.
This is the coalition’s dilemma: Extracting concessions from the regime to level the electoral playing field has meant not antagonizing it by playing “hearts and minds” politics, or filling some of the gaping holes in the state’s capacity to provide services or welfare.By failing to have done this, the JMP has sacrificed some of the popular support that might force the regime to deal with it on a more equal footing.
Support for the JMP on the Street
While the JMP’s leadership decries the regime, it continues not to directly appeal to the street for fear of crossing over the regime’s red lines against competing populist politics, thereby risking being either marginalized or crushed by the regime. The regime has made amply clear that this type of action will be considered tantamount to treason.The JMP’s reticence to take this path is a rational response to a difficult position, but this has damaged its credibility. Dissatisfaction with the regime is, therefore, not being funneled to the JMP automatically, because the coalition’s mainstream is widely seen as being enmeshed with the status quo.
Clearly illustrating this dilemma, in a number of the demonstrations that took place in 2007 in the south, including in parts of the Yemeni Socialist Party’s heartland, protestors turned against the JMP, lumping it together with the government and calling for the downfall of both. The JMP’s public preoccupation with institutional and electoral reforms has had little popular resonance. People want alternatives.
With the surge of popular discontent over the dearth of service provision and the lack of equal citizenship, this is not an unachievable goal, and the JMP could find fertile ground if it could better articulate, and act upon, the issues that affect people’s daily lives. This said, the gravity of Yemen’s situation means that the possibility for business as usual politics is probably already over.
The Political Vacuum
The lack of a clear alternative leadership creates space for radical actors, though not necessarily with an Islamist frame of reference.
Jihadis have started to combine southern grievances with internationalist jihadi ideology in public statements and through sympathetic Imams in some mosques. For example, in June 2008, Qassim al-Raymi (one of the leaders of the recently announced al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula), made a statement that specifically referred to the regime’s treatment of the south and accused the regime of being irredeemably unjust and corrupt. Al-Raymi is from the northern capital of Sana‘a, however, and his reference to the south was more entrepreneurial than personal. This tendency was amplified by the southern Shaykh Tariq al-Fadhli in April 2009, a long-standing regime ally with solid jihadi credentials. He shocked President Salih by publicly defecting from the regime and calling on southerners to “drive away the occupation and have our own southern independence.” In May, the leader of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wahayshi, echoed these sentiments by announcing his support for “the people of Southern Yemen” in their struggle to secede from President Salih’s regime.
The two critiques — one jihadi and the other secessionist — are thus merging under the broad complaint that the regime is ruling unjustly. As the money that fuels the Yemeni patronage system runs out, the rules of engagement that have been operational since unification are rupturing and previously unlikely short-term alliances are becoming more likely.
The willingness of militant jihadis to draw these types of links is an illustration of the potential for southern discontent to spiral into an even more multifaceted, if somewhat disparate, popular rebelliousness against the regime. If the JMP does not manage to provide a more compelling destination for those who call for change, it runs the risk of helping to illustrate that as Yemen moves closer to a precipice, peaceful participation is not particularly effective.
1. The significant internal divisions among the JMP’s members are beyond the scope of this essay but also hamper the consistency of message that the JMP portrays to the public. See Michaelle Browers, “Origins and Architects of Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 39 (2007), pp. 565–86, and Sarah Phillips, Yemen’s Democracy Experiment in Regional Perspective: Patronage and Pluralized Authoritarianism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
2. For example, President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih explicitly equated protests over prices rises in September 2007 with treason.
3. Nasser Arrabyee, “Soldier killed, 14 injured in Yemen clashes,” Gulf News, April 29, 2009.
4. Arafat Madayash and Sawsan Abu-Husain, “Al Qaeda Call for Islamic State in Southern Yemen,” Asharq Alawsat, May 14, 2009.