Ginny Hill
(Former Chatham House Expert)

Yemen's political crisis is fast approaching a tipping point, with ever-growing numbers of anti-government demonstrators calling for Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down, after more than 30 years in power. They are also calling for an end to elite corruption, widespread poverty and high levels of unemployment. They want a more legitimate, responsive and inclusive government.

Last month, as Egypt's political crisis began to gather speed, President Saleh promised he would stand aside in 2013, at the end of his current term in office. He offered to form a national unity government and agreed to postpone April's parliamentary elections until he could reach a bi-partisan deal with the opposition coalition.

In an attempt to reach out beyond the political elite, Saleh announced several waves of bread-and-butter inducements, including public sector salary hikes and new jobs for graduates. He also shored up his patronage network among the tribes, distributing cash gifts and cars to loyalists in a bid to keep key sheikhs onside.
However, the scale of the street protests has created a new momentum in Yemeni politics, which is forcing many of the key players within the established political elite to reassess their alliances.

A television channel owned by business tycoon and opposition politician Hameed al-Ahmar broadcasts regular updates on defections from within the regime and the ruling party. Hameed's eldest brother, Sadek, heads Yemen's most powerful tribal power bloc, the Hashid confederation, while his brother Himyar is the deputy speaker of parliament. Hameed's personal wealth is said to bankroll the opposition's grassroots activities but his ambition to be president - or at the very least, a kingmaker in a future transition of power - also divides the coalition.

Politics in Yemen are highly personalized, and power is not fully structured through institutions. Neither government ministries, nor the ruling party nor the opposition coalition represents the real distribution of political power. Even some factions within the opposition are loyal to President Saleh, and different army divisions have not always acted entirely as instruments of the formal state. This adds to the confusion, when journalists - both Yemenis and foreigners alike - try to report on the status of political dialogue or rumoured deals, such as the opposition's latest counter-offer demanding that President Saleh steps down by the end of this year.

International media coverage of the protests currently lags behind reporting from other countries in the region. There are very few camera crews on the ground and al Jazeera staff face threats and intimidation. The Yemeni government has imposed a ban on new visas for journalists and researchers, and English-language reports are filed by a handful of Western freelance journalists already living in the capital, Sana'a, when the protests began. Yemeni activists are using YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to get their message to the outside world.

Yemen's street protests are amplifying existing tensions within the country's power elite but activists reject the idea of lending their support to a leadership bid from a new face who will simply perpetuate the current system. They want to see a fundamental reconfiguration of the political space. Under this model, any new president would need to build an inclusive coalition that attempts to balance the conflicting interests of the southerners, the rebels in Saada, the clerics, key military officers and key tribal leaders, as well as the urban protestors. Successful confidence building measures would probably include a degree of devolution, or even federalism, to keep the southerners on side.

The protestors also want better economic conditions and a higher standard of living. In a country where a third of the population is already living below the breadline, that's already a tall order but Yemen's falling oil production means economic conditions have the potential to deteriorate even further over the coming years. This has undeniable political consequences when power is brokered through cash-based patronage networks, and it opens up the potential for foreign powers to try to influence, or prolong, the coming power struggle.

US officials have expressed deep concern at President Saleh's use of violence against the protestors but they currently have all their eggs in one basket in Yemen. The US is channeling millions of dollars in military aid to President Saleh's son and nephews, who command the elite security and intelligence units that tackle al-Qaeda. The royal family in Saudi Arabia, who also fear al-Qaeda's presence in Yemen, maintain an extensive network of influence among Yemen's tribes and have allegedly paid billions of dollars direct to President Saleh in recent years. Riyadh and Washington might prefer the status quo and fear the chaos of transition but it may already be too late to stop the forces unleashed by nationwide street protests from pushing the issue towards a resolution.

Yemen Forum >>