Political change in Yemen might not be as radical, but it could be faster and more stable
As one of her first acts of 2011, Hillary Clinton traveled to Yemen--the first Secretary of State to do so since James Baker in 1990. During her visit, she explained the nature of the U.S. commitment to Yemen: It is concerned with counterterrorism, yes, but also with the health of Yemen's political system. "Over the long run, Yemen's economic and political development and its security are deeply intertwined," Clinton said. "We will support whatever agreement Yemen's political parties reach together as they negotiate electoral reform."
Two weeks later, on January 27, thousands of Yemenis flooded the streets of Sanaa, demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, political reform, and an end to the deep dysfunction of Yemen's government. It was an electric moment, coming so soon after the upheaval in Tunis that had led many to wonder if Yemen would become "The Next Tunisia." Fast-forward to this past week, and now Yemen has become the next Egypt, the latest of national dominoes teetering from popular protests - or so it might appear on the surface. In fact, Yemen's protest movement is far less revolutionary than Egypt's. But for precisely that and other important reasons, the Yemenis could be much likelier to force much-needed change with little or no bloodshed.
The protests in Tunisia and Egypt share many similarities. Both have been largely spontaneous, driven by mass frustration with the regime and gentle encouragement by activists. Lacking any charismatic leadership or sense of planning behind them, both have been the very definition of "people power," or a mass movement in the streets. Egypt's protests have been so grassroots that Michael Walid Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation and TheAtlantic.com contributor, lamented Thursday that the lack of opposition leaders was "really felt." With no coordinated messaging about the protests, he said, what leaders there are have seemed disconnected from the protesters in the street.
Yemen is different. In Cairo the anger on the street, the hatred for Egyptian President Mubarak, is palpable. In Yemen, there is anger, to be sure, but it is focused on specific issues within President Saleh's system of rule. Unlike in Egypt, the opposition is organized by Yemen's many dissident parties, which have practice at spreading their messages and at rallying people into the streets.
And President Saleh is not President Mubarak. While both are brutal autocrats, Saleh has actually won a competitive election that's widely considered legitimate. He also has made concessions to protesters and opposition parties before. Most importantly, Saleh has shown himself capable of bending on issues when he feels it's necessary. Unlike Mubarak, he often works within the political system to outmaneuver and outflank his opponents, rather than to simply crush them with brute force. A notable exception is the Houthi rebels in Northern Yemen: Saleh has treated those communities with appalling violence; but then, the Houthis were not leading last week's protests.