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The New Republic: Spring Trap

Authors: Michael Makovsky, Blaise Misztal, and Jonathan Ruhe
March 31, 2011

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The uprisings of Yemen may not be able to have the same outcome of those in Egypt and Tunisia.

The public uprisings spreading like wildfire from Tunisia to the Persian Gulf have been referred to collectively as the "Arab Spring." But in fact, as the Obama administration crafts its policy responses, it should strive to avoid this unifying narrative, lest it obscure the unique challenges faced by each country, as well as the distinctive ramifications that each uprising has for U.S. interests. Today, this is nowhere more true than in Yemen, where a fractious mix of insurgents, tribes, Al Qaeda, and secessionists could spark violent chaos if the current president were to leave office, with significant strategic implications for the United States.

A year ago, in the aftermath of the Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt in Detroit, Yemen was branded the "next Afghanistan." Unsurprisingly, the U.S. reaction focused on counterterrorism, increasing military assistance, and launching drone attacks against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). With the advent of popular anti-government protests against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Obama administration has kept a low profile.

Perhaps the administration has adopted this posture because it hopes Yemen will go the way of Egypt and Tunisia, where political transitions have been relatively organic and proceeded smoothly thus far. Indeed, it is tempting to see Yemen through this lens: From this perspective, an easy solution would be for Saleh to hand over power to some transitional caretaker authority. However, Yemen is not Egypt; it is a highly tribalized, fragile state, racked by poor governance, incipient separatism and violent extremism. Yet nor is it Afghanistan before September 11; Yemen boasts well-established religious and secular political parties, large youth-driven protest movements and a regime at least partially willing to partner against terrorism.

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