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Yemen's Uncertain Political Future

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University
June 7, 2011

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President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen was wounded June 3 in a rocket attack launched by rival tribal leaders on the presidential palace. He was evacuated along with other wounded officials to Saudi Arabia, where he underwent an operation, and will reportedly return to Yemen soon. But there are questions about whether Saleh will actually return and whether Yemenis would accept it, says Yemen expert Bernard Haykel. There are also questions about who would succeed Saleh, who has "leveraged the potential chaos of Yemen, which he has himself fostered, to get money and support from outside governments, like the Saudis or the United States," says Haykel, adding that the United States has been myopic in its focus on the threat of al-Qaeda in Yemen and has been susceptible to Saleh's "tricks." While the United States and Saudi Arabia have been working together on managing the Yemen crisis, and the Saudis have favorites for replacing Saleh, Haykel thinks the best political solution right now would be a national unity council until elections can be held.

What do you think will happen in Yemen, politically?

Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has taken over leadership of the country. The problem, though, is that one of President Saleh's sons, Ahmed, who leads the Republican Guard, is still in Yemen. One question will be whether this son and his military units will agree to be commanded by the acting president of Yemen, Hadi. There are two other big questions. One is whether Saudi Arabia will allow Saleh to return to Yemen as soon as he's better, if he does get better--because there's a question as to how serious his injuries are. And if he comes back, whether he'll want to resume the role of president. In the Yemeni constitution, if the president is absent for sixty days, elections have to be held. The last question is whether any Yemenis will accept his return, and the answer to that seems to be absolutely not. Neither the demonstrators, who are, by and large, leaderless in the streets, nor the opposition forces--and there are a number of them--will accept Saleh back as president

Saleh was first president of North Yemen, and then of all of Yemen, since 1978, when he took over in a military coup. Why is he suddenly so unpopular?

He's been unpopular for quite some time. The man has run the country by constantly playing different factions against each other as a survival tactic. He has maintained power by the old game of divide and rule, and also patronage and clientism. He has used oil revenues to pay off potential opposition and to keep the loyalty of certain groups and individuals with him. The problem is that over time Yemen's oil is running out and the population has exploded, and none of its developmental challenges have been really addressed. One consequence of the way Saleh has ruled is to prevent institutional forms of accountable governance from taking place. There is no transparency in government.

Another tactic of Saleh's has been to leverage the potential chaos of Yemen, which he has himself fostered, to get money and support from outside governments, like the Saudis or the United States. He would threaten that if he's not around, the tribes will take over and Yemen will have a civil war like Somalia. He has claimed that Iran is involved in supporting some of his local enemies as a way of getting the Saudis to pay for him to crush these "local enemies." And most frequently, he's used the al-Qaeda threat. In the 1990s, when there was a huge democracy wave, he pretended that there was a democracy movement in Yemen and held elections--most of which were rigged--to get support from the West.

One consequence of the way Saleh has ruled is to prevent institutional forms of accountable governance from taking place. There is no transparency in government.

The United States has poured millions of dollars into Yemen's military, particularly after the abortive attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit in 2009 on Christmas Day.

There's been an American effort to support the unit that is also led by his son, Ahmed, which is a counterterrorism unit that has more recently been used against local enemies.

Has the U.S. government exaggerated the threat from al-Qaeda in Yemen?

The United States government has been myopic, in that it sees only the threat of al-Qaeda. In fact, al-Qaeda exists in Yemen because of the weak nature of the state in Yemen, and President Saleh has not wanted to crush al-Qaeda because they've been a useful tool in garnering American and other outside support. Al-Qaeda in Yemen consists of two hundred or three hundred individuals. They're not a real threat to the Yemeni people, and have been allowed to exist because the Yemeni regime sees them as useful for its own policies and politics. The Americans have fallen victim to the claims of Saleh and his tricks.

The Saudis know Yemen, which is on the southern Saudi border, very well. Do they have a favorite to replace Saleh?

The Saudis would like to see General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar take over. But he's not a viable candidate. The problem with Mohsin is that he's very heavily compromised in the system that Saleh had in place until very recently. So, I don't think Ali Mohsin, despite his recent break with Saleh, is going to be acceptable to most Yemenis. Ali Mohsin is responsible for the killing of many thousands of civilians in the north of Yemen in the last four or five years, in a rebellion by a group called the Houthis. The Houthis, who control a good chunk of northern Yemen, will never accept him as their leader. He is also responsible for the expropriation and appropriation of large tracts of land in southern Yemen, so he's heavily involved in the corrupt practices of Saleh. So the southerners are not likely to accept him either.

What about the vice president, Hadi?

He's a southerner and a caretaker. He's not someone who has the charisma or the authority to rule Yemen beyond this transitional period.

Who is the leading candidate, then?

I don't think there is one. The Saudis have a number of candidates: One of them is this general I just mentioned, Mohsin. The Ahmar family, the family of tribal chieftains [not related to General Mohsin al-Ahmar], has a candidate--one of their sons, a man called Hamid, who also is problematic for many Yemenis, because he was heavily involved in the system that Saleh had in place. The demonstrators in the street don't have a candidate, because they don't have a leader who's emerged. So it's not obvious that there's one person who would be acceptable to Yemenis, writ large. At best, you will have a national unity government with a number of individuals representing these different factions, which represent this very fragmented society in a very politically fragmented country.

Does the United States have a candidate?

I don't think so. The United States is now trying to coordinate with the Saudis on the future of Yemen. It's the Saudis who have the most influence there, both because they have the historical connections and the personal connections to various tribes and various leaders in Yemen and [because] they have the deepest pockets to be able to throw money at Yemen to help ameliorate some of the country's immediate economic problems.

Looking at the whole "Arab Spring," soon to be the "Arab Summer," you would think it's quite likely that Saleh will be the latest dictator to be thrown out, right?

Yes but that doesn't mean that now Yemen is going to turn into a democracy.

Is it likely to be even more chaotic in Yemen?

It's possible that Yemen might become chaotic. A lot will depend on whether these different opposition groups can work together. There is a question mark over the future. Whether we see chaos or not, a civil war or not, will depend largely on both what the Saudis do and what ordinary Yemenis are going to do. There are tens of thousands of them in the street who have been demonstrating for a long time, and there's a problem in that the opposition leadership and the people in the street are not one and the same group. So this opposition leadership is not necessarily in control of the people in the street.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen [is] not a real threat to the Yemeni people, and have been allowed to exist because the Yemeni regime sees them as useful for its own policies and politics.

Yemen is often described as the poorest country in the Arab world. Is that accurate?

It vies with the Sudan and Mauritania; it's one of the poorest, certainly.

Because it doesn't have the kind of oil that Saudi Arabia does.

That's part of the reason. It doesn't have much oil, but it also has a huge population--the largest in Arabia, about twenty-five million. It has limited natural resources; it has poor governance; all the developmental indicators of health, education, and so on are fairly low. And it's running out of water, in additional to running out of oil.

Are the Saudis very concerned about Yemen?

They should be. As to whether they are, I think that they think that they can throw money at the problem and just kick the can down the road.

It's interesting how the Saudis have become extremely active in trying to work their way politically through this chaos.

They've been a force for what they call "stability," by which they mean no change, but in Yemen, they've become the stewards of change--even willy-nilly, despite their own desire.

But they haven't sent any troops into Yemen, as they did in Bahrain.

No, they didn't. There have been troops deployed on the Yemen northern border, against the Houthis.

And does the United States have troops on the ground, or do we have trainers?

We have trainers.

President Obama has urged Saleh to step down, has he not?

He has, because of the Gulf Coordinating Council agreement that offered him immunity and asked him to step down. But Saleh promised to sign the agreement three times and reneged.

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