Even before the “Arab Spring” began in Yemen, the Yemini government was faced with serious challenges to its legitimacy, to wit: the Huthi rebellion in the north, the secessionist movement in the south (“The Free South movement,” al-janub al-hurr, sometimes called al-Hirak), and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Popular uprisings in Yemen’s major cities beginning in January 2011 grew into yet another challenge to former Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. The “Arab Spring” was an unforeseen, game-changing phenomenon in Yemeni politics that turned former allies of Salih into overt rivals and led to the ousting of Salih and further erosion of state authority.
Protestors in the thousands took to the streets in Sanaa in January 2011. The protests were organized by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of opposition parties in Yemen’s parliament that included the Islamist al-Islah party and the Yemeni Socialist Party, among others. One of the most notable figures in the early days of the protest movement was Tawakkul Kirman, a journalist, women’s rights activist and, for a time, member of al-Islah.
On February 2, President Salih made offers that fell far short of the protestors’ demands. On February 3, an estimated 20,000 protestors marched in Sanaa. “Change Square” (maydan al-taghyir) near Sanaa University became the hub of the anti-regime demonstrators. By the end of February, in order to prevent the country from descending into chaos, Salih suggested the formation of a national unity government in accordance with the law and the Yemeni constitution. The opposition, however, refused this offer and demanded Salih’s resignation.
On March 18, the ranks of the protestors in Sanaa had swelled to 100,000. In the late afternoon, this large procession was fired upon by uniformed security personnel, and plain-clothed gunmen perched on rooftops. By the end of what many described as a “massacre,” fifty-two people had been killed and hundreds were wounded. The government was widely blamed, though it denied all responsibility. President Salih spoke of the victims as “martyrs of democracy.” He also sacked his entire cabinet, yet asked them to remain until a replacement cabinet could be assembled.
The violence against protestors on March 18 decisively eliminated any remaining legitimacy of Salih’s rule in the eyes of a vast majority of the population. It also provided popular cover for Salih’s rivals, e.g. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and Sadiq al-Ahmar, to openly call on the President to resign. The patrimonial system of co-opting potential rivals, which President Salih had used to maintain power, could not endure in the face of such widespread and total condemnation of the regime.
Another casualty of the March 18 violence was the United States’ tacit support of President Salih. Because Salih had been a staunch ally in the War on Terror, the Obama Administration was initially reluctant to openly call on Salih to step down as it had with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The rising death toll convinced US policymakers that Salih’s obstinacy would only lead to increasing instability and violence.
The Yemeni government’s preoccupation with anti-regime protestors went against US interests, which centered on the struggle against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. After March 18, US officials began signaling off the record to regional allies and the media that Salih’s hold on power was untenable and that in the interests of stability, he should step down.
In April 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, began efforts to negotiate a peaceful transition of power in Yemen. Salih was invited to a conference in Riyadh along with the leaders of the JMP. Salih was to transfer the powers of the presidency to Vice President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi.
Simultaneously, a coalition government led by the JMP would be put in place, and new elections for both the presidency and parliament would be held two months after the deal went into effect. Last but not least, the Gulf Initiative stipulated that Salih and his relatives would be immune from future prosecution. Salih praised the Gulf Initiative while simultaneously insisting that he would not step down until the scheduled end of his term in 2013. On May 2, Salih again backed out of signing an agreement.
The remainder of 2011 witnessed instances of AQAP and other al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups taking over towns, the Huthi consolidation of Sa’da Province, and a stalemate in Sanaa between loyalist forces, anti-government Hashid tribesmen, and Muhsin al-Ahmar’s 1st Armored Division.
However, there would not be any more dramatic political realignment such as that which followed the March 18 shootings. In early June 2011, after he was injured in an explosion, Salih was forced to flee to Riyadh for medical treatment, but in September surprised many when he returned to Yemen, as defiant as ever.
Although Salih’s return prompted a temporary surge in violence in the capital, he inevitably acquiesced to the Gulf Initiative on November 23. On January 22, 2012, Salih left Yemen for medical treatment in the US. He returned in February to be present when ‘Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi was officially sworn in as Yemen’s new president.
Although Salih’s tenure finally came to an end, his family’s enduring influence over the government, especially the most well-trained, well-equipped units of Yemen’s military, portend that the Salih family will continue to play an influential role in the expected transfer of power from the GPC to the JMP.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the post-Salih government of Yemen will be able to reverse the erosion of state authority in the face of the Huthis, the Hirak “Free South” movement, and AQAP. Regionally, Yemen has become a cause for concern, especially for neighboring state Saudi Arabia, due to the increasing activity of AQAP and the perception of Yemen as a potential hotbed for radical movements.
Almost two years after the uprisings began, the situation in Yemen remains far from stable. This is why on the one hand, Yemen serves as a case in point, showing the unpredictable outcome of the upheaval in the Arab world – as opposed to how it was initially understood in the West: as a secular democratic upheaval expected to have only positive outcomes. On the other hand, the case of Yemen also shows why one should not generalize the Arab uprisings as one movement; rather, we should keep in mind that each Arab country has its own distinct history and features.
Prof. Uzi Rabi is the director of Tel Aviv University’s internationally top-rated interdisciplinary research center, the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History. His fields of specialization include the modern history of states and societies in the Persian Gulf; revolutionary dynamics in the Middle East; oil and politics in the Middle East; Iranian-Arab relations; and Sunni-Shi’i tensions.