Since January, Yemenis have taken to the streets in massive numbers, protesting the economic policies and allegedly corrupt practices of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and demanding that he resign. Earlier this month, Saleh sustained serious injuries in an assassination attempt and left the country for treatment. Of course, the situation in Yemen is far more complex than the personality, politics and policies of a single man. To understand the events there, including the dramatic prison break of more than 60 Islamic militants this past week, it’s necessary to understand Yemen’s socioeconomic and security dynamics — and to see beyond some widespread misunderstandings.
1.Yemen is the latest country to join the Arab Spring.
In Tunisia and Egypt, popular uprisings against autocratic leaders ushered in the Arab Spring, in which democracy-minded protesters throughout the region have used civil resistance and social media to bring about regime change or reform. Yemenis did these things, too. But their story is not a simple extension of the Arab Spring.
After a forced unification in the 1990s, northern and southern Yemenis clashed repeatedly, including in a brief civil war in 1994. Southern separatists still periodically demonstrate against the northern-run government. Meanwhile, in the north, Shiite rebels also claim grievances against the primarily Sunni government in Sanaa, the capital. Violent uprisings have led to Saudi armed intervention and suggestions of possible Iranian involvement. This rebellion also continues.
With separatists in the south and rebels in the north, the central government has essentially no control of vast areas outside the capital. Yes, many of the 24 million Yemenis want to fix the nation’s rampant poverty through representative governance. But civil war remains a very real possibility. And it’s a possibility that existed before the Arab Spring and that goes far beyond a rallying cry for democracy.
2. With Osama bin Laden dead, Yemen has become al-Qaeda’s new stronghold.
Osama bin Laden’s death shocked the global terrorist network. Yet long before the spectacular May 2 raid that killed him, al-Qaeda operators had found a home in the ungoverned spaces of Yemen and many other nations.
John Brennan, President Obama’s principal counterterrorism adviser, said in Decemberthat the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) poses a greater threat to U.S. national security than the main al-Qaeda branch in Pakistan. More recently, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, told Congress thatAQAP is currently the greatest threat to the United States. One of its leaders, a U.S.-Yemeni citizen named Anwar al-Aulaqi, has links to several attacks on the United States, from the failed car bomb in New York’s Times Square last year to the Fort Hood shootings in 2009. AQAP claimed responsibility for the unsuccessful Christmas Day attack on a Northwest Airlines jet in 2009 and the attempt to send bomb-laden packages via U.S.-bound cargo flights last October.
Yet, while U.S. officials believe that AQAP is more agile and aggressive than al-Qaeda affiliates elsewhere, it is important to recognize that operatives in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and northern Africa’s Maghreb region may also be growing in numbers and capabilities. Yemen is an al-Qaeda stronghold, but it is not the only one that deserves attention.
3. Saleh’s close ties to Washington have made him hated at home.
Despite the north-south divide in Yemen, the unified complaints against Saleh focus on his economic, social and political policies, which have left his people impoverished. His pro-U.S. stance is unpopular, but anti-Western sentiment has played a far smaller role in this year’s protests than have his domestic policies.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. Roughly half its children suffer from malnutrition. Water is running out. Rising prices of basic commodities — bread, milk, meat – have made daily life much more difficult. Unemployment hovers around 35 percent, 10 percentage points higher than the regional average, with young people the most likely to be out of work. The situation will only get worse — Yemen is projected to double its population by 2025, just as oil supplies and revenue run out.
As in anti-regime protests elsewhere, Saleh’s abysmal economic and development policies made him a lightning rod for the frustration of a huge segment of Yemeni society. They took to the streets regardless of his relationship with Washington.
4. A stronger president could deal with the al-Qaeda threat.
Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States and Yemen launched a combined offensive to eliminate AQAP’s leadership and damage its infrastructure. This effort was quite successful, and it proved that Saleh’s regime could contribute to counterterrorism operations.
However, those efforts have faltered in the past few years as AQAP has taken advantage of high unemployment, poverty and the instability caused by internally displaced Yemenis and refugees from Somalia.
Any central leader would be ill-equipped to address all of these challenges at once, particularly in light of a possible civil war. The opposition has said it supports a transfer of power to Vice President Hadi, but it’s far from clear that he could succeed where Saleh could not.
5. U.S. military assistance of $1.2 billion will make a key difference.
The U.S. Central Command has proposed providing Yemeni forces with $1.2 billion in training and equipment over the next six years.
But this aid — which would include automatic weapons, coastal patrol boats, transport planes, helicopters and logistics advisers — could not unify Yemen or increase the government’s control outside the capital without considerable economic and social development aid. U.S. assistance needs to strike a more appropriate balance to address the underlying causes of unrest.
Before the 2001 attacks, the United States delivered a few million dollars in development assistance to Yemen. By 2010, State Department aid totaled about $63 million annually. Yet this was only about 40 percent of the planned Defense Department military assistance program for Yemen that year.
The State Department’s senior counterterrorism official, Daniel Benjamin, has noted that U.S. and Yemeni military efforts against AQAP may “deny it the time and space it needs to organize, plan and train for operations.” But a long-term solution, he said, “must involve the development of credible institutions that can deliver real economic and social progress.”
Automatic weapons, helicopters and logistics advisers — even $1.2 billion worth of them — won’t get Yemen there. They can’t.
Stephanie Sanok is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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