Originally posted June 2009

This project was originally imagined as a multi-authored consideration of Yemen’s April 2009 parliamentary process — its lead-up, outcomes, and likely consequences. Following the postponement of these elections, the authors have instead sought to examine not only the stated and implicit reasons for the delay, but also Yemen’s increasing political unrest — turmoil which the regime has helped foster and to which it has begun to overreact. For the authors, the key question is less whether the elections will be held in 2011, but whether the country will remain intact until then.

All of the authors register the Salih regime’s “muddling through” approach to anxieties about citizen disorder and regional fragmentation in contemporary Yemen. Sheila Carapico eloquently describes how the regime has increasingly suppressed press freedoms, but far from enabling the regime to keep hidden its internal problems, censorship has “alerted international journalistic networks to conflicts they might otherwise have overlooked.” Sarah Phillips documents the limitations of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of five parties representing a variety of ideological commitments which functions like an elite-based lobbying group; its weakness may mean that political opposition to the regime is left to “radicals from outside the system.” For Stephen Day, it is the Southern Movement and its demands for “equality of citizenship” that prove the most politically promising attempt to counteract the regime’s current coercive, but tenuous, hold on government. And it is the regime’s exaggerated response to uprisings in the southern and eastern governorates, as well as its attempts to appease protesters by allowing indirect elections of local governors, which have backfired, prompting some leaders of the Southern Movement to speak openly in terms of secession. April Longley Alley and Abdul Ghani al-Iryani want to see a unified Yemen sustained and urge the regime to participate in a “mediated national dialogue,” which, in order to be successful, must generate “far-reaching institutional reforms,” rather than the ad hoc ones that have undermined Salih’s bargaining credibility.

Most of the authors are pessimistic about Yemen’s future, and the tensions characteristic of Yemeni political life also find expression in the authors’ arguments. For Longley Alley and al-Iryani, the Salih regime remains “both a hindrance to and a necessary partner” in achieving stability. For Phillips, the JMP’s strategy of negotiating directly with the regime is both necessary to the coalition’s survival and detrimental to its flourishing; the JMP needs to be more populist, but efforts to cultivate constituencies independent of the regime’s patronage system make leaders more vulnerable to charges of treason. Day describes the regime’s “monopolistic political control of the country” and also speaks of “north-south splintering.” These tensions in the authors’ diagnoses, and in Yemeni political life, suggest that the regime might be both challenged by but also able to weather protests in the country; that its divide-and-rule strategies have not ensured stability but may still be capable of keeping the regime durable. I simply do not know. The vibrancy of Yemeni political life, evident in widespread protests, in the newspaper articles of a courageous but harassed press, and in the clarion calls for social justice articulated in mosque sermons and political rallies may or may not be successful in curtailing corruption or transforming regime politics as usual. Insofar as the authors manifest a desire for political transformation and for stability, they are giving voice to two aspirations that may, at times such as these, be at odds.