As U.S. missiles slam into Libya, Saudi troops put down demonstrations in Bahrain, and Egypt holds its first free referendum, the dramatic, perhaps cataclysmic, change another Arab country—Yemen—is undergoing is lost in the mix. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled—in the loosest sense of that word—unruly Yemen since 1978, may soon go the way of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Should he fall, however, Yemen may become even more unstable, plunging the country into strife, perhaps even civil war, and increasing the risk of terrorism.
Before the latest wave of revolutions swept the Arab world, three civil conflicts plagued Yemen. First, in northern Yemen near the Saudi border, Houthi rebels have long battled the regime, claiming discrimination and government abuses. Second, many southern Yemenis, disgruntled by discrimination and exclusion from power after South Yemen and North Yemen merged in 1990, oppose Saleh's regime.
The third conflict—the one most important to Washington but least important to Sanaa—consisted of attacks by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an al-Qaida affiliate. Over the last several years, AQAP has struck at security and leadership targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It also orchestrated two near-miss attacks on the United States, the 2009 Christmas Day attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it approached Detroit and a 2010 attempt to bomb two cargo planes headed for the United States. Anwar al-Awlaki, an AQAP leader, is based in Yemen. A dual citizen of the United States and Yemen, al-Awlaki's sermons inspired Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter.
Washington has increasingly pushed the Yemeni government to be more aggressive against AQAP, but Saleh saw, correctly, that the Houthis and southerners posed a greater threat to his rule. AQAP has killed dozens of Yemenis, but in a country rife with violence, that is not a huge number. Also, and even more cynically, the AQAP presence brings with it massive U.S. financial and military assistance—too much success against AQAP is not in the Yemeni government's interest. In fact, at times, Saleh had worked with jihadist groups linked to al-Qaida against southerners and other domestic enemies.
The three revolts undermined Saleh's chronically weak government, already strained by economic stagnation, declining access to fresh water, and a growing population. Like all dictators, Saleh relied on his military forces to hold on to power. However, because his military is in poor shape, and because Yemen's tribes are well-armed, Saleh became adept at playing rivals off against one another and at co-opting potential opposition figures. The tribal nature of Yemeni society aided this, as different tribes often do not cooperate, and different lineages within tribes can also be rivals.
Today, the pillars of Saleh's regime are crumbling. A new force—demonstrators inspired by the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali—emerged and marched to demand Saleh's ouster. Yemeni police and soldiers fired on demonstrators but failed to intimidate them, while Saleh's offer to leave power after the end of his current term and his firing of the Cabinet was seen as too little, too late. Yemen's fractious opposition, for now at least, has come together to demand Saleh's resignation. Key tribal leaders that long cooperated with Saleh have now denounced the regime. Most important, Saleh's longtime friend and stalwart Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar threw his support behind the anti-Saleh demonstrators. Army units loyal to Ahmar now protect demonstrators against those units still supporting Saleh.
Should Saleh fall, Yemen's prospects for stability look even worse. It is possible that Gen. Ahmar or another figure would replace Saleh as a new dictator, balancing tribal and military power and otherwise walking the Yemeni tightrope, perhaps eventually increasing the legitimacy of the Yemeni government. More likely, however, a consensus candidate will not emerge or, if he does, will at first be even weaker than Saleh was.
Houthis and southerners will see Saleh's fall as an opportunity to grab more power and influence, moves that may anger military leaders with a more nationalistic orientation. Demonstrators with a more pro-democratic bent will seek a leader who is not simply Saleh by a different name but someone committed to a more open and accountable political system. Yemeni tribal leaders, always eager to exploit a vacuum, will expand their influence.
Today, much of Yemen is governed at best loosely and at times not at all by the central government, so the further decline of centralized power at the expense of warlords and tribes would not change Yemen overnight. However, it would make Yemen more prone to further regime change and instability, as the alliances and patronage systems Saleh established all come up for grabs.
Saudi Arabia may destabilize things even further. Riyadh views Yemen as the kingdom's backyard and worries that instability there could spread north. Saudi Arabia has often tried, and often failed, to play kingmaker in Yemen. Should a new ruler in Sanaa try to hew an independent line from Riyadh, as Saleh did, the Saudis may give financial and other support to his enemies.
For the United States, the biggest worry is terrorism. Osama Bin Laden could take advantage of additional instability to channel more resources to Yemen. No matter what, AQAP will take advantage of any easing of pressure to plan more attacks and build their organization. A new government, like Saleh's, would probably see AQAP as a relatively minor threat and would focus its intelligence services and political energies on its domestic enemies and rivals, leaving counterterrorism a distant second. There is only so much cooperation the United States can buy.
U.S. influence in Yemen is quite limited. The United States can try, like Saudi Arabia does, to support its favored local factions against their rivals. This may put Washington crossways with Riyadh if we have different favorites. An even bigger problem is that the United States lacks the intelligence for such deft dancing and would likely be manipulated by local players.
So, as it always does, Yemen will go its own way while the world averts its gaze. Unfortunately for both Yemenis and the United States, Yemen's future may be worse than its present.