Yemen: Where Will Change Take You?


As the people of Yemen started protesting this year, their leader, Ali Saleh, said he would not seek re-election, hoping this would satisfy the crowd. When the protests continued, the police used tear gas. Saleh then promised a new constitution, but that was not enough, and the unrest intensified. Saleh’s men then opened fire on the crowds, causing injury and death. Saleh’s response was to discharge his cabinet, but the crowds wanted more; they wanted Saleh gone. Following the mutiny of some high-ranking generals, Saleh finally offered to resign, but not until next year. That offer, of course, was too little and too late.

Yemen is now in a state of emergency, as Saleh suspended basic constitutional rights. It appears that after 31 years, Saleh will be gone soon. Yemen is about to go through change. The question is what will it be? Who will replace the 31-year regime?

The situation in Yemen is not like Tunisia or Egypt. Yemen is at risk of going from bad to worse. It has history of civil war, a poor economy, a large population of 24 million and an almost equal  Sunni-Shiite mix. It is located in a very troubled part of the world. If the crisis is not resolved, Yemen could easily slide into conflict.

Yemen previously had internal strife. North Yemen experienced an 8-year Civil War (1962-70), which pitted royalists against rebels. South Yemen (Aden) battled British colonial rule (1963-67). Following independence, the South (Aden) and the North (Sana) struggled with each other at times, before creating one republic (1990). Four years later, a part of the country tried to secede, leading to another Yemen Civil War (1994).

Yemen is a place where there has been violence against the U.S. The port city of Aden is where the USS Cole was bombed and 17 Americans died in 2000. Sana is where the U.S. Embassy was attacked and another 18 perished in 2008.

The Yemen economy is one of the poorest in the world. It is not like Libya or one of the Persian Gulf states, where protesters can be placated with oil money. Here, poverty exists, which is the fuel that often ignites revolution. Neighboring Saudi Arabia actually built a wall to keep the flow of impoverished Yemenis out.

Yemen’s population is 50% Sunni Muslim and 50% Shiite. Unlike the North African states, where 99% were from the same Islamic school, Yemen is closer to the Iraqi model, where divisions between the two Islamic branches may be exploited.

Yemen is geographically located in a troubled neighborhood. Somalia, the poster child of a failed state, is located just across the Gulf of Aden. In this part of the world, pirates captured 49 ships in 2010 alone, and there is a certain degree of lawlessness here.

While no regime should continue beyond 31 years, particularly if the people are opposed to it, we can only hope, given what Yemen is up against, that what follows will be an improvement.

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