Tens of thousands gather in the streets of Sa’na, demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh—it’s the Yemeni edition of the Great Arab Awakening sweeping the Middle East and toppling governments previously counted as US allies. Aside from framing events within this rather broad narrative, however, what is really going on inside Yemen—and why is it important to the rest of the world? What can we, as outsiders, really say about events there that has any reality apart from the ideological narratives we invent for our own purposes?
Such invention has been a staple of US policy in the region and “expert” commentary emanating from Washington, much of it originating with the present government of Yemen, headed up by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. According to the official Yemeni government line, the regime is facing as many as three “terrorist” threats: from rebels in the north, from secessionists in the south, and from the biggest bogeyman of them all—al Qaeda.
Let’s start with the situation in the north, where Saleh is apparently taking his cues from another despot of the Gulf, King Hamad of Bahrain—who still insists the largely Shi’ite upsurge in his island kingdom is supported and motivated by the Iranians. The Saleh regime has similarly blamed Iran for inciting Shi’ite rebels in the northern provinces, who have been waging a growing insurgent campaign against the central government for the past five years.
This “outside troublemakers” narrative is advanced strictly for Western consumption, however, as the Zaydi sect of Shias, who make up the core of the insurgency, are theologically and ideologically distinct from their Shi’ite compatriots in faraway Tehran, with whom they have several important differences. While the government of Iran has made propagandistic noises in support of the uprising, there is no evidence of any concrete support, either financial or in the form of weapons. Tehran would certainly like to take credit for the insurgency, but as for taking any action—that is unlikely for several reasons.
The Zaydis reject the theocracy of Khomeini-ism, and have a more philosophical and rationalistic approach to theological matters. The sect was founded by Zayd ibn Ali, the leader of a failed rebellion against caliph Hissam, in 740. Unlike the Iranian Shia, whose theology lends itself to subjection to authority, the Zaydis hold to a semi-anarchistic worldview. This outlook is encoded in a political theory that starts off by recognizing the trinity of Ali, Hasan, and Husayn as the first three rightful Imams, and from that point departs from “mainstream” Shia theological and political theory in a dramatic way.
While most Shia recognize Imam Ali Zayn al-Abidin as the true fourth Imam, the Zaydis depart from their Iranian counterparts on the issue of who constitutes his legitimate successor. The Iranians give the title to Muhammed Al-Baqir, but the Zaydis prefer Al-Baqir’s brother Zayd—and hold that subsequent claimants to the imamate are legitimized only by those among their descendants who take up armed rebellion against tyrants, just as their founder did. Al-Baqir refused to fight against corruption, and therefore lost his legitimacy.
As the Ottoman empire descended into decadence and final dissolution, the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, under Imam Yahya, a Zaydi, was declared an independent state in 1926. The Kingdom fought wars with the Saudis, who were impinging on Yemen’s borders to the north, and also against the British protectorate in Aden, to the south. With the rise of Nasserism, however, there was pressure to join the Pan-Arabist movement, and Yemen briefly united in a loose confederation with Egypt and Syria: however, the union was never really consummated, and the Yemenis soon withdrew. This was followed by a palace coup in Sa’na, led by Nasserist officers who overthrew the monarchy and founded the Yemeni Arab Republic. Ali Abdullah Saleh emerged as the strongest of several competing strongmen, and was made President by order of a constitutional council.
In northern Yemen, there has been a revival of Zaydism, promoted by the powerful Houthi clan, and this has morphed, over the years, into a full-scale political movement. Houthis complain that the central government neglects the north, discriminates against northerners in allocating funding, and is in effect a dictatorship which only extracts whatever scarce resources exist in the poorest region of the poorest country in the Middle East. In effect, the Houthis are a separatist movement, which seeks to free itself from the tyranny of a secular but hardly democratic central government.
Sa’na also faces a separatist rebellion in the south, where the Southern Movement has been agitating for independence ever since the civil war of the 1990s, which pitted the remnants of the “People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen” against the “reunified” central government in the capital. The PDRY had existed since the 1960s, created in the wake of the Nasserist Pan-Arab sentiment that swept the region as British colonialism retreated. Nationalist riots broke out in the south, with two rival leftist groups, the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) fighting each other as well as the Brits for control. Out of this turmoil, the NLF came out the victor, and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Yemen, with an ultra-left faction taking control in 1969, inaugurating the PDRY, and setting up a one-party state based on the Russian model. The PDRY was in effect a member of the Soviet bloc, and aid poured in from the Kremlin and the Chinese. In the north, however, with its anti-authoritarian religious and social traditions, the new order was unwelcome, and royalist guerrillas fought the central government continuously.
With the implosion of the Soviet empire, the two Yemens agreed to reunite: but this “unity” was largely illusory. The defeat of the Yemeni Socialist Party and its allies in the subsequent elections, in which Saleh emerged the victor, led to rising tensions: the resulting stand-off soon culminated in all out civil war, which the north won decisively. The central government in Sa’na appointed military governors to rule over the southern provinces, and southerners were expelled from the army, and public service positions: southern Yemen was, in effect, occupied territory, subject to martial law. The Southern Movement grew out of the resistance to this draconian policy.
Faced by two separatist movements which threaten his power, President Saleh has become increasingly dependent on his American patrons, who have deemed his nation the latest front in the “war on terrorism.” Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise is blamed for recent attacks on Western targets, including the fabled “Underpants Bomber” and the Fed-Ex bomb attempts. Tribes thought to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda have been hit with air strikes by US war planes, with the Yemenis taking “credit” for it until the truth was made public by WikiLeaks.
Washington has always been very careful not to criticize Saleh, who has held office since 1978. Until recently, he was following the example of Hosni Mubarak in arranging to have his son succeed him, and in all other respects his relations with the US and his own subjects has been distinctly Mubarakian: one man rule, a strict internal regime, and a flood of US aid at his disposal that made it possible for Saleh to dispose of those who could not be bought off.
What Saleh wasn’t counting on was what he and his American patrons never saw coming: the Arab Awakening, which has toppled three despots in less than three months and threatens to overthrow him very shortly. Tens of thousands are marching all around the country demanding Saleh step down: efforts by the regime to placate the rising opposition with promises of “reform” and a vow by Saleh not to run for reelection have been for naught. Still, the crowds of protesters keep growing, and security forces have clamped down: government thugs have fired into crowds, killing dozens—and still the protests swell, centering in Sa’na but spreading throughout the country, north and south.
It’s only a matter of time before Saleh follows Mubarak and Ben Ali into the trash bin of history, and meanwhile Washington is clueless as they try to save their client by mouthing the rhetoric of “reform.” It is a repeat of the Egyptian events: a student-led movement that is secular, diverse, rooted in longstanding economic and historical grievances—and all but unstoppable.
What worries the US is that this interferes with their “war on terrorism,” and could lead to what our rulers and their court intellectuals call a “failed state”—that is, a country freed of the constraints of a national government, in which localized social institutions take the place of a “modern” centralized state apparatus. Such a turn of events, they fear, will provide an opening for al-Qaeda, a power vacuum that Osama bin Laden and his allies in the region will surely fill.
This is pure scaremongering: the reality is that bin Laden and his local affiliate have next to zero support in Yemen. When the local al Qaeda franchise bombed the French oil tanker Limburg, in 2002, the result was an environmental disaster that flooded the waters off the port of Al-Dabbah with oil, costing millions of dollars in property damage and many thousands of jobs—an act not appreciated by the already impoverished population. In the largely Shi’ite north, the fanatical Sunni doctrines espoused by bin Laden have no appeal, and in the more developed central and southern provinces the students who are leading the movement to overthrow Saleh have no use for the austere doctrines of the terrorists.
Such support as Al Qaeda has in Yemen is from two sources: financial subsidies given to tribal leaders (hardly a sign of ideological enthusiasm, since these tribes also took bribes from the Marxists of the PDRY and from Saleh), and the infiltration of foreigners into the country, from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. There is no “Al Qaeda in Yemen,” as such: only transnational operatives and such influence as money can buy. The idea that Yemen is a major “base” for Al Qaeda is a myth propagated by Washington, which is eager to open up as many “fronts” in the “war on terrorism” as they can possibly invent.
This time, however, their capacity for invention has got them in a quandary. Their puppet, “President” Saleh, is on the ropes, and the people are banging on the gates of his palace, demanding his ouster. As in Egypt, the Washington “experts” have been caught flat-footed, and US officials are scrambling to keep ahead of events—which, nevertheless, keep outpacing them.
The US empire in the Middle East was always a house of cards, and now that it is tumbling down its fragility seems so obvious that one wonders how it could have escaped our notice. In Yemen, and throughout the Middle East, American marionettes are reacting to the upsurge in stages: first, with indifference, then, as the protests grow, with threats, and then, belatedly, with attempts at appeasement. When even that doesn’t work, they resort to outright repression, which is the stage we are in now in Yemen.
As the defections from Saleh’s camp continue, and the situation devolves into what official Washington would describe as “chaos”—and which history will characterize as a democratic revolution—the US is faced with a stark choice: either intervene directly, or else take our chances with a roll of the dice and see if we can influence the victors.
In Egypt, we chose the latter: in Libya, it looks like we’re inching toward the former. In Yemen, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a sudden “plot” by Al Qaeda is “discovered”—along with a pretext for a more direct form of US intervention, covert or overt, up to and including sending troops to “keep order.”
This is a potentially risky course to take, but—unfortunately—one cannot imagine the leaders of the world’s greatest superpower letting events take their course without trying to direct them in some way. That whatever action we take is likely to backfire in our faces is not going to deter the Washington know-it-alls, who think they can manipulate entire peoples like pawns on a chessboard.
Already the crowds in Sa’na are chanting slogans against the government that depict Saleh as the agent of Washington and Israel: if we want to create more anti-Americanism in the region, then—by all means—let us intervene. If, however, a miracle comes to pass, and we somehow neglect to stick our noses where we don’t belong, perhaps a disaster can be avoided.
The idea that US interests in the region are at war with the natural impulse of people to be free is nonsense: we would gain more friends if we just stood aside and let the Arabs awaken from their long slumber. Instead, however, I fear we’ll just try to lull them back to sleep again with empty promises of “reform”—and only succeed in provoking rising resentment. Whispering advice in the ears of President Saleh and King Hamad (of Bahrain) will not save either of these crooks from the wrath of their subjects. There’s just one strategy that will work for Washington in this situation, and it can be summed up quite succinctly: get out of the way.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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