Middle East

Yemen's Intifada

Journalist Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani faces the death penalty for publishing war news that "demoralized the military." (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

Yemen is facing instability unseen since its 1994 civil war. A war with Shiite rebels in the northern Saada province left over 50,000 internal refugees. The rebellion ended in June but threatens to reignite as neither side has fully implemented the cease-fire conditions. The political and economic marginalization of vast segments of society contributed to the rebellion as did endemic governmental corruption, lack of basic services, and draconian security measures. These factors are also the catalyst for widespread protests in southern Yemen, some of which attracted over 100,000 protesters. Ten protesters were killed, allegedly by security forces, and many were beaten and arrested.

Hegemony Not Integration

Unrest in southern Yemen has its roots in northern hegemony following the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen. The Yemeni Socialist Party, which formerly ruled the south, was marginalized following Yemen's 1994 civil war. Dr. Aidroos Naser al-Naqeeb, head of the Y.S.P.'s parliamentary block, said, "The Y.S.P. Central Committee indicated that the South was treated as the spoils of war including land, people, companies, and wealth. The Y.S.P. also noted the violence against the current protesters reflects the type of politics which has dominated after the outcome of the war."

Post-war reconciliation between North and South was thwarted by the corruption among the northern oligarchy and by the installation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's relatives in many top military and security posts. Successive constitutional amendments centralized power in the executive, leading to a de facto merger between the ruling party and the state, both headed by Saleh.

Since May, protests have spread across Aden, Dhalie, Lahj, Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadramout, organized by former southern military officers. They claim they were punitively discharged following the civil war at stipends well below sustenance level. Southern civil and military pensioners number over 100,000. Broader southern grievances include the appropriation and theft of commercial, residential, and public land by powerful northerners. State employment is an area of perceived systematic discrimination. Ubiquitous military camps and checkpoints are another sore spot.

Broad Discontent Finds Its Voice

Civil unrest in the South triggered a national outpouring of discontent. Thousands of protesters in Taiz held aloft water bottles and bread. In the oil producing Marib governorate, demonstrators demanded a share of oil revenue, jobs, and development funding. In Amran, north of the capital, 10,000 tribesmen demanded governmental reform. Teachers, students, doctors, pharmacists, trade unions, unemployed youth, journalists, and kidney patients have held individual and sometimes joint protests in the capital, Sanaa.

One common complaint among the various interest groups is rising prices. Inflation in the poverty-stricken nation was over 20 percent in 2006. Hoarding by the domestic wheat monopoly exacerbated international price increases on wheat in 2007, and higher priced loaves of bread shrank in size. Cooking gas cylinders increased in price from 400 Yemeni rials to 1,000 Yemeni rials.

Discontent also stems from the failure to implement in full the 2005 Wages Strategy, intended to buffer a reduction in oil subsidies. The reform dose was to be accompanied by corruption control and a reduction in governmental spending. However, a 278-billion-Yemeni-rial supplemental 2007 budget appropriation was pegged to the costs of the northern rebellion, continued oil subsidies, and the extra month salary promised to government workers during Saleh's presidential campaign. The regime reinstated the draft to counter unemployment, although many citizens complain of being excluded from military service by domicile. Few top officials were prosecuted for misconduct although corruption takes 23 percent of the national budget.

Predictable Response

Despite the demands for relief and reform, Saleh's regime is responding with the same tactics that spurred the unrest. Riot police fired live rounds and deployed tear gas and water cannons against protesters. Dozens of oppositionists were arrested including the Y.S.P.'s Hassan Ba-oom and the head of the military pensioners association, Gen. Nasser Al-Nawbah. Both were charged with treason and faced the death penalty, launching another round of protests. The pair was later released; however, 20 other political leaders were arrested. Hundreds remain in prison following the Saada War, including children.

The nongovernmental media is under assault. Journalist Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani faces the death penalty for publishing war news that "demoralized the military." Security forces prevented Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya reporters from covering the southern protests. The Y.S.P.'s news Web site was blocked. Conversely, the regime uses the broadcast media to stir public sentiment, airing an Eid al-Fitr sermon that declared the protesting retirees no longer Muslims.

President Saleh is also attempting to manage public sentiment by promising reform and restitution; however, public trust is extremely low. Eight thousand southern officers were reinstated. Col. Naser Saleh Abdul Qawi reported that one condition of reinstatement was a pledge to foreswear peaceful political activity. Saleh proposed constitutional amendments to enhance local rule, but a recent electoral "reform" stacked the electoral commission in favor of the president's omnipotent ruling party. In a Ramadan speech, Saleh downplayed the "fabricated crisis." However, presidential advisor and former Prime Minister Abdel Bajammal threatened to revoke a weapons ban and rearm the northern citizenry to face the southern protesters.

Despite regional polarization, northern monopolization of military assets makes civil war unlikely. If oil production drops sharply, as predicted, nationwide discontent will increase. However, a disorganized, splintered citizenry decreases the risk of revolution. Yemen's opposition parties have yet to establish an internal process of representation. Yemen's 2009 parliamentary elections may unify the citizenry in rejection if the process is as unfair as the last presidential election. If instability increases, military commanders may move to protect their interests through a coup.

Jane Novak is a political analyst and expert on Yemeni affairs.