*A version of this article was originally published on ForeignPolicy.com on April 12, 2011
Divide and conquer. That's the strategy Ali Abdullah Saleh has employed for 33 years to remain atop Yemen's extremely diverse political landscape. But the Yemeni president's efforts to keep his country in a state of low-level dysfunction are also at the root of its current problems. Chaos allows Saleh to make politics a family affair, keeping the reins of power in the hands of his sons and nephews.
And yet the old ways don't seem to work anymore, as the armed rebellion in the north and the massive civil disobedience movement for secession in the south had already suggested, even before hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets to demand Saleh's ouster. Now, with the recent bloodshed, the defection of his most important military commander, and the revelation that the United States and the Gulf Arab states are actively seeking Saleh's peaceful exit from power, it's clear the president has pushed this strategy too far. Rather than dividing the opposition, Saleh has managed to unite it against him.
We can never count Saleh out, but the tipping point may have been reached with the April 4 killing of at least 12 protesters in Taiz, the capital of the cosmopolitan "middle regions" of Yemen, by Saleh's security forces. Just as he seemed to be regaining political ground, the spilling of more innocent blood left many with the impression that the president has lost control. The opposition -- which consists of traditional opposition parties under the banner of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), street protesters, a big chunk of the military under Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the northern Houthi movement, and the southern movement, called the "Hirak" -- responded with massive demonstrations. Read more significantly, the regime's foreign backers decided that Saleh needed to step aside immediately -- and not, as Washington had hoped, after a negotiated period of several months.
With Saleh knocked back on his heels, Yemen's immediate future now depends on the opposition's ability to remain united while engaging in serious political negotiation -- no easy task, given its past. The day before the Taiz killings, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, a Houthi leader, warned that time was on Saleh's side. The negotiations and many proposals for reforms, transitional governments, and power sharing between the JMP and the government, he said, had allowed the president to exploit divisions in the opposition. Sure enough, Tawakul Karman, one of the protest movement's most dynamic activists, has forcefully criticized the JMP's latest proposal, which sketches out a transition in which Saleh hands over power to his vice president, a national unity government headed by the opposition is created, and the security forces are restructured under a "transitional military council."
But, as Karman pointed out, the proposal did not take into consideration the views of the southern movement, the Houthis, or the street demonstrators -- precisely the groups the JMP needs in order to successfully challenge Saleh. The Houthis' military victory in the north and the sustained widespread civil disobedience movement in the south had reduced the JMP to parliamentary games with little relevance on the street. In turn, the street protesters -- mostly the unemployed, some tribesmen, and university students -- rejected the JMP. And the street has shown that it cannot be ignored: In early March, when the JMP first accepted Saleh's proposal to negotiate a solution, protests forced the JMP to back out of the negotiations. The JMP has now built relationships with the Houthi, the southern secessionists, and to some extent the street protesters that have enabled the party to present a powerful front against the president, but one that is very dependent on its new partners. Without them, it is little more than an appendage of the regime.
Yet Yemen's diverse politics are not necessarily a liability. Perhaps the salient achievement of the street demonstrations is that they have brought together groups that until recently were killing one another -- or at least refusing to talk -- in solidarity against Saleh's regime. Each group knows that it cannot rule alone and that its political and economic interests would be hurt by a complete collapse of the central state. The local autonomy of the Houthi north, as well as to some extent that of the southerners, is now a political fact. The next step is to maintain and institutionalize the dialogue and coordination that has emerged out of the opposition movement and strike some sort of balance between regional autonomy and a central state.
Yemen's future depends on it. The opposition alliance has already reaped significant gains: The power of the street demonstrations has helped consolidate the Houthis' participation in the national political dialogue and induced the southern movement to drop at least temporarily its demand for secession.
Saleh's proposals for a political solution to the current crisis are not unreasonable. He has called for a peaceful transfer of power based on respect of the rule of law and the Yemeni Constitution. He has voiced his support for an opposition government, a new constitution, a parliamentary system, a new election committee, and a transitional period before new elections. The blood in Taiz, however, has damaged the president's credibility. Opposition leaders fear he is using these proposals to buy time, which he hopes to use to divide the fragile opposition. In response, they are demanding guarantees of real transfer of power.
Much now depends on the post-Taiz negotiations, which are ongoing in various forms, as well the skill of the Yemeni opposition. The U.S. ambassador in Sanaa, the European Union, and now the Saudis have joined forces to mediate between the president and the opposition. These international actors must be wary of the temptation to anoint another strongman. Although a narrow government might look strong in the short run, it will be weak in the long run.
Early elections will be critical for regaining political stability. All of Yemen's various political actors are wary of one other, but all agree that elections are a legitimate means of distributing power. And all agree on one thing: Saleh can't be trusted to preside over a transition fairly.
Charles Schmitz is a Scholar at the Middle East Institute, the Chairman of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, and a Professor of Geography at Towson University.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.