Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Yemen’s uncertain future

By Max Calloway

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Also see: Egypt |Iran |Tunisia | Yemen | Jordan|Syria

Before the Arab Spring, the only time Yemen made the news was if a westerner had been kidnapped, someone in the country decided to attack a piece of United States property or the U.S. was caught ordering drone strikes on remote villages. And so, despite being the birth place of Arab ethnicity and the original source of coffee, few outside of counter-terrorist experts paid too much attention to the small, impoverished nation that forms, along with Oman to the East, the southern border of the Arabian Peninsula.

For three decades and running, tribal-strongman turned President Ali Abdullah Saleh has treated the country, its people and its resources as if they were private means to his own selfish ends. He has allowed foreign energy corporations to slurp up the country’s small oil reserves and turned a blind eye to water conservation.

Now the area that the Roman’s dubbed, “Lucky Arabia,” because of its relatively lush environment faces severe water-shortages, produces nothing but qat – an oral narcotic chewed by nearly every man in the country that is water intensive and leeches nutrients from the soil – and has been teetering on the brink of full-blown instability for the better part of the past decade.

It was amidst a civil war with Houthis rebels in the north, secessionist tensions in the woefully neglected southern provinces and al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula raising its head in the eastern deserts that popular dissent, once relegated by fear of government retribution, burst out into the public square following similar movements across the Middle-East.

Donning pink, waving banners and calling for the resignation of their presidential despot, the people of Yemen hoped to affect, through non-violence, the sort of radical change that Tunisia had attained and that Egypt was nearing. But, as Yemeni Prime Minister Ali Mujawar declared in February of last year, “Yemen is not Tunisia or Egypt. Yemen has its own different situation.” And while the Prime Minister’s sentiments were aimed at de-legitimizing popular sentiment, he couldn’t have been more correct.

Unlike Egypt – the former head the Pan-Arab nationalist movement – and Tunisia – a country that developed a unified national identity in the face of European colonialism – Yemen only achieved national unity in 1994 after the initial unification in 1990 sparked a civil war based around the former port capital of South Yemen, Aden. Before this time, the country was split between north and south, republic and socialist, while the outlying provincial areas continued to rely on local, tribal based political systems.

So while Saleh may be able to call himself a great unifier in terms of cartographical achievements, it has been clear to many observers that his retention of power rests on his ability to balance the needs of a multitude of regional demands … well that and his recourse to violence.  However, this past year has shown that the Saleh regime and central government by no means have a monopoly on the use of force.

In late May, after Saleh reversed his decision to sign a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that would see the peaceful transition of power under the supervision of a temporary unity government and the passing of the reigns to an new, interim president, the powerful Hashid tribe threw their support behind popular resistance. Soon the capital city of Sana’a was on the brink of civil war with rebel fighters taking control of several government ministries, the airport and water utilities. Then, on June 3, Saleh’s compound was hit by a mortar shell leaving him with a collapsed lung, burns on over 40 percent of his body and forcing him to seek emergency medical attention in Saudi Arabia.

Despite all of this, Saleh returned to the country in September and only agreed to cede power to his vice president and a unity government as part of a new GCC deal at the end of February 2012. But a new Al Jazeera report confirms that Saleh is up to his, at this point, completely played out tricks again and is trying to renegotiate the terms of the GCC deal so that he would oversee the drafting of a new constitution and retain his position as the country’s leader until the new government is ready to take over.

But while Saleh tightens his grip – excuse my Star Wars paraphrasing – more provinces slip through his fingers; and, with the bloodless takeover of the Eastern Abyan province by al-Qaeda forces, some critics believe that Saleh is encouraging regional volatility. Unfortunately, such a conspiracy theory isn’t as paranoid as it sounds, especially when it concerns a man that has systematically ignored the needs and desires of his people for over three decades.

With such rampant instability and multifarious complications, the future of Yemen’s future doesn’t seem optimistic. Even if a new central government is formed in the near future, many ecologists and political theorists wonder if anything can be done to mitigate the damage Saleh’s negligence has allowed to flourish.

It pains me to see such a beautiful country, a country I called my home for seven months suffocate under the weight of another American backed despot with no cares other than foreign aid and adherence to all the stereotype of the macho-man leader. While I have hope that the country can reorganize itself along the more regional and federalist lines that Jillian Schwedler describes in a March 18 Al Jazeera article, the fact remains that the country will need some serious focus and guidance.

But with the slow death of the central government and AQAP gaining increasing footholds in nation’s cracks, I fear that we will be seeing a lot more of Yemen on our television screens, not as a paragon of revolutionary change, but as the new front in “war on terror.”

Max Calloway can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Yemen’s uncertain future”

  1. Kevin on April 7th, 2012 6:37 pm

    Saleh isn’t in power anymore…

    [Reply]

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