Yemen: the Salih factor

An editorial in the Washington Post at the weekend argued in favour of sustained, long-term – and probably expensive – American support for Yemen. So far, so good, but several things bother me about this editorial.

First, the headline: "Why it's wrong to rule out nation-building in Yemen". Maybe this was just the headline-writer's carelessness, but Yemen does not need nation-building; it needs state-building.

Yemenis already have a strong sense of national identity (seeChapter 1 of my e-book, The Birth of Modern Yemen). The secessionist urges in the south and among the Houthi rebels in the north have far more to do with marginalisation and the way the Salih regime has treated them than with a separate sense of nationhood.

Yemen's real problem is the weakness of the state: central government's inability to deliver leads people to ignore the state and go their own way. The result is what Khaled Fattah, a researcher at St Andrews university, describes as a "self-cancelling" state. 

The first sentence of the Washington Post's editorial includes the now-obligatory reference (for American media, at least) to al-Qaeda. There's no doubt this magic buzzword helps to stimulate interest in Yemen within the US but, as I've pointed out before, al-Qaeda is not by any means the biggest of Yemen's problems. It's also unwise to make al-Qaeda the mainstay of arguments for long-term aid in Yemen. What if al-Qaeda goes quiet for a while? So too will the pressure to continue the aid. Yemen needs long-term support because – with or without al-Qaeda – it will still be a cause of instability in the region and beyond.

The difficult question, of course, is what kind of support Yemen should get. The Washington Post does have one or two sensible suggestions – "Independent media and civil society groups seeking to broaden political freedoms could be supported and shielded" – but then it says "Government forces could be trained not just in counterterrorism operations but in the broader counterinsurgency mission". This sounds alarmingly like a proposal to help Salih fight his private battles with the Houthis and the southerners.

The crucial point here is that the Salih regime is part of the problem, so any aid should be directed towards the Yemeni people and not towards propping up their ailing government.

Yemen resembles Afghanistan in many ways but one important difference is its politics. Yemen has had a multi-party system with (fairly) regular elections for the last 20 years. The potential for a working democracy is there but Salih's party, the General People's Congress, has established hegemony over the system (much in the way that Mubarak's National Democratic Party has done in Egypt).

However, there is a chance that this hegemony could be broken in the not-too-distant future.

Under the constitution, Salih is due to step down from the presidency – permanently – on 27 September, 2013. One very simple and constructive step the international community can take would be to make their support for Yemen conditional on Salih's departure by the due date: to allow a genuine electoral contest next time, and no messing about with the law to extend his term or let him stand again.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 January 2010.