Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Yemen’s Revolutionary Discontents

by Isobel Coleman
June 22, 2011

Yemeni rights activist Tawakkol Karman shouts slogans as a policeman watches during an anti-government demonstration in Sanaa, Yemen, February 15, 2011 (Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Courtesy Reuters).

Yemeni politician and activist Tawakkol Karman published an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “Yemen’s Unfinished Revolution.” A leader of Yemen’s democratic youth movement and founder of the NGO Women Journalists Without Chains, Karman is an outspoken advocate of reform in her country. For several years, she has led student protests at Sanaa University, demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s corrupt government step down. In January, as the turmoil of Arab discontent spread across the region, Karman’s protest movement became a focal point of opposition. Every day, she could be found in front of the main gates of the university, leading a growing group of protesters in chants of “No studies, no teaching until the president is out.” When I visited with Karman at her home in Sanaa in mid-January, she insisted that she would not be deterred, even if the regime arrested her—which indeed happened just two days later. True to her convictions, Karman continued her protests after her brief detainment. With President Saleh recuperating in Saudi Arabia from severe injuries sustained in a recent bombing of his palace, it appears that Karman’s first objective has been achieved: Saleh is out, and unlikely to return.

Yemen now suffers from a power vacuum. Karman voices the revolution’s demands that authority must pass to a “transitional presidential council approved by the people,” and that this council must manage the country until elections can be held. She reiterates that a democratic system supported by development and civil institutions is the way forward for Yemen.

Unfortunately, the longer instability persists in Yemen, the more divorced from reality this vision becomes. Yemen’s current situation is not so much a negotiation between the advocates of reform and the remnants of the old regime—as is the case today in Tunisia and Egypt—but instead looks more like a raw power struggle between rival armed factions. The sons and nephews of President Saleh have a monopoly on the country’s security forces, whereas the influential Ahmar clan, a rival family, has its own forces fighting Saleh and in recent months has been bankrolling the protests. A further wild card is General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (not related to the Ahmar clan), who defected from the military and brought loyal troops with him. These troops have been protecting protesters and have also clashed with Saleh’s forces. This situation could easily devolve into civil war. Moreover, the political opposition is relatively weak and not in a position to argue effectively for lasting reforms amidst this chaos. Most opposition parties are grouped under the umbrella of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which includes Islamists, socialists, and tribal leaders. The JMP lost the support of many protesters after it signed a deal with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC had attempted to broker Saleh’s exit, but the arrangement seemed to offer Saleh too much leniency.

Then there is Karman’s own party, al-Islah (meaning “reform”). Although it is the country’s main opposition party, it is largely a conservative force. Resistance from Islah was responsible for indefinitely delaying a vote last year on a law restricting child marriage, a significant problem in Yemen. Islah’s platform across the spectrum of challenges affecting Yemen is not clear, and its standpoint and role in the “new” Yemen have yet to be determined. What we do know is that urgent social, economic, environmental, and demographic issues will not be resolved while chaos continues to reign. (Yemen could be the first country to run out of water.)

One of thirteen female members of the former Islah block in the parliament, Karman herself is a complicated figure. She has become an icon of women’s rights and of the revolution, yet her party is not particularly women-friendly (as per its stonewalling of the child marriage law). While she decries U.S. and Saudi involvement in Yemen, she says Washington and Riyadh are the only ones who can ensure a stable democratic transition in Yemen. I admire and respect Tawakkol Karman for her courage and determination, but I do not share her optimism about Yemen’s revolution. Sadly, the chances of democracy emerging anytime soon are pretty low.

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  • Posted by Kieth Krumvieda

    For the upright there are no laws. – German Proverb

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