Is Yemen Better Suited for Reform Than Egypt or Tunisia?

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 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.

Yemen's own "Day of Rage," held this past Thursday, one week after Egypt's, turned out to be a generally polite mix of comparably sized pro- and anti-government protest groups. The Thursday protests in Sanaa--the Yemeni opposition has promised to hold a protest every Thursday until President Saleh relents to their demands--was repeated throughout the country. Some rallied for the "southern movement," part of which seeks south Yemeni secession, some protested the intrusive U.S. and Yemeni government security services, and some were simply upset over the stagnant economy. But, unlike in Egypt, neither the president's head nor the government's collapse were on protesters' agendas. Saleh, in other words, is not in any immediate danger of being strung up on a lamp post, which gives him leeway to do what he always does: try to accommodate public demands, if only in some minimal way.

Saleh's initial round of concessions--raising government and military salaries, cutting tuition at state universities, and similarly small gestures--hasn't done much to blunt the frustration of the protesters. But what do they really want? Answering that question isn't as easy as it might seem: about half the people marching on Thursday were there in support of the government. And most English-speaking Yemeni journalists are associated with opposition groups, which can make understanding the motives of regular protesters very difficult.

But just because these protests seem to be more of an old cycle of protest and concession doesn't mean they're meaningless.

In a bid to keep a lid on things as best he can, Saleh will likely continue to dole out concessions. That could be especially productive for Yemen if it prompts a national compromise over the laws governing this year's coming parliamentary election. Because he has promised not to seek reelection, Saleh can safely retool the country's restrictive electoral laws with no threat to himself.

Most importantly, the protesters in Yemen are not demanding revolutionary change. Unlike those in Tunisia and Egypt, the Yemenis, based on their more modest demands and more orderly protests, seem to want some reforms and a peaceful, eventual transition of power--something the country's government seems willing to accept

Seeing both pro- and anti-Saleh groups hold large rallies at the same time with fairly little violence is an encouraging sign that Yemen could come out of this national dispute without catastrophe. It's not a revolution, and it won't make for nearly as compelling TV as the uprising in Egypt, but it could bring important and bloodless progress to a part of the world that badly needs it.

Photo by Mohammad Huwais/AFP/Getty