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Reading the Tea Leaves in Yemen

Note: I had one more Egypt dispatch in my notes to post, but as I left the country and bounced around my new (temporary) home events on the ground have passed it by, so Waq al-waq will now return to regular blogging on Yemen.

Over the weekend as I flew out of Cairo I read story after story about Yemen’s own “day of rage.”  Newspapers and most outside experts, it seemed, expected day to be a repeat of January 25 in Egypt.  When it wasn’t they quickly concluded, as Victoria Clark argued in this New York Times op-ed, that “Yemen won’t fall.” 

This AFP piece quotes three other experts arguing similarly that these protests aren’t much of a threat to Salih. 

I’m not so sure.  It is important to remember that news in Yemen – or anywhere else for that matter – doesn’t happen on our schedule.  There is, I think, this assumption that all these dominoes will start falling, one after another in the Middle East.  And while the visual of Yemen erupting into Egyptian or Tunisian like protests may have made a good visual for international news networks it was always a bit premature to expect this to happen last Thursday.  These movements, or whatever you want to call them, take time to grow and this is only starting to take place in Yemen.  Besides which, Yemen has always been the caboose of political fashion in the Arab world:  Egyptian Revolution 1952, Tunisia 1957, and Yemen 1962.

The potential of mass unrest in Sanaa and other major cities like Taizz is clearly what motivated Salih to make preemptive concessions, pledging not to stand for re-election in 2013 (although he made the same pledge prior to the 1999 and 2006 elections), working to withdraw the amendment doing away with term-limits, and pledging his son would not succeed him.  But, so far, this is all talk.

Salih’s GPC and the opposition’s strange JMP coalition are talking and negotiating, but as Salih is always reminding us: Yemen is not Tunisa – his latest has: Yemen is not Egypt or Tunisia. 

Political parties are still relatively weak in Yemen.  Party loyalty is, in my opinion, far down the pyramid in any sort of a hierarchy of allegiances. 

Early on, I said Yemen would be in trouble if two separate things took place.  1.  if Mubarak fell in Egypt and 2. when people started taking to the streets in large numbers outside the umbrella of the opposition.  So far neither of these have happened, but that does not mean that they won’t.

I’m also confused by the argument I have heard many outside experts making that suggests Salih is somehow smarter than either Mubarak or Ben Ali.  Their is certainly a talent in maintaining power for as long as Salih has in Yemen, but both Mubarak and Ben Ali survived for quite a while until they, suddenly, did not.   None of the three are bumbling idiots , despite how they may sometimes come across in their recent television spots.  They all held onto power in difficult situations usually by crushing their opponents.  

Things in Yemen are still building.  It is anyone’s guess what will happen, but I think it is mistake – at least at this point – to write off these protests in Yemen.

I’m not saying that Egyptian-style protests are going to sweep Yemen in the next few months I’m simply saying: Don’t call this putt too early.

Note: Sorry about the constant repetition of an AQAP photo that has nothing to do with this post – I’m currently working (or rather having my team) work on a Waq al-waq logo that will soon replace that eyesore.


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