The Corner

Crisis or Opportunity in Yemen?

Today, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh announced that he would not seek reelection when his current term expires in 2013. Before heralding the announcement as another regime to fall in the current wave of change sweeping the Middle East, observers should note that Saleh may not stick to his word. Saleh said he would not seek reelection in 2005, then broke his promise by running in the 2006 elections. He accomplished a similar flip-flop in 1999, when Saleh faced the first direct elections in decades of rule.

The political unrest in Yemen existed long before the recent wave of protests in Egypt and Tunisia. In early January, the Yemeni parliament backed the removal of term limits, thus allowing Saleh to serve more than two terms and run again in 2013. Opposition politicians and the Southern Movement rose up in anger after the changes, fueling many of the incidents of turmoil on Yemen’s streets. Demonstrations in the south of the country have built upon a foundation of tensions that go back to the 1994 civil war in Yemen, which itself resulted from divisions that lingered after the 1990 reunification. Events in Egypt and Tunisia have, however, helped spur the rallies, providing inspiration to protesters that governmental change can be brought about through nonviolent action.

Like Egypt’s Mubarak, Saleh has been in power for roughly three decades. He has also worked closely with the U.S. on counterterrorism issues. Unlike Egypt, Yemen is host to an active conflict with a terrorist group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Like Mubarak, Saleh has portrayed himself as the only entity that can block al-Qaeda’s control of the country. Saleh has provided assistance on some U.S. counterterrorism issues, including allowing the use of drones. But his government’s efforts to defeat AQAP have fallen far short of U.S. goals for the country. The Yemeni government has failed to arrest any significant AQAP leader. It has not made major inroads into the rural and mountainous parts of the country home to AQAP and its hosts among local tribes. This has caused problems for U.S. counterterrorism tactics in Yemen. Without the presence of friendly forces near al-Qaeda safe havens, unmanned drones lack the intelligence necessary to target and eliminate AQAP leaders. Moreover, the lack of political accountability in Yemen has fueled political grievances in Yemen that AQAP has attempted to exploit. A freer Yemen could better deal with the resentments that the tribes hold against Yemen’s central government.

Saleh may survive the recent protests, which are Yemen’s largest in recent years. Yet the unrest has clearly unnerved him. Beyond today’s announcement, he has made a number of other concessions. He has increased the salaries of government employees and the armed forces, lowered tuition fees for students, reduced taxes, extended social security, and proposed the creation of a fund to reduce the severe unemployment among university graduates. The details of these proposals, particularly the unemployment-reduction measure, remain unclear. Yemen faces a difficult situation as reduced water resources and lessened petroleum production threaten to further undermine its economy. Subsidizing unproductive jobs or delivering cash payments to graduates will only worsen the situation. Saleh or other Yemeni government officials could attempt to make the best of this crisis by shifting Yemeni regulations to better favor small and medium enterprises and the creation of a larger middle class. The Index of Economic Freedom ranks Yemen “Mostly Unfree,” far behind its “Moderately Free” neighbors Oman and Saudi Arabia. Real growth will come from a liberalized economy, not handouts.

Political tensions and economic and security challenges abound in Yemen. Yet the situation is not all bad. In an e-mail, Yemen expert Chris Harnisch writes:

The situation actually provides an advantageous window of opportunity for the US though because it should give us time to work with the government to prepare for a smooth transition, and work with political parties, civic groups and election monitors to prepare for the 2013 election.

The U.S. could shift the current situation in Yemen from chaos to opportunity, setting Yemen on a path to greater economic and political freedom, reducing its attractiveness as a safe haven for terrorist groups. This would require a real strategy for the country, however, and regular and direct engagement with constituencies in Yemen other than those tied to Saleh and beyond those located in the capital of Sana’a. It remains to be seen whether U.S. representatives in the country are willing and able to take on such a challenge.

Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

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