Yemen has its own distinctive historical path

Interview with Dr Berny Sèbe of the University of Birmingham.

Everyone believes that protests in Yemen were developing much in the same way as in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries, but I suspect there is still something very special about this country. Am I correct?

Yes, that is true, although it shows some similarities with what is happening elsewhere in the Arab world, and in particular for instance the fact that tribal divisions are quite rife, which is also something that takes place in Libya. In the case of Yemen, there is a distinctive historical path which is now having an impact on the ways in which the country seems to be threatened by the risk of a civil war. So in particular there was a historical division between the north and the south given that the south of Yemen existed as an independent country which was the only Marxist republic that ever existed in the Arab world, between 1967 and 1990. So there is still a very strong secessionist feeling in the south, there are also Shia rebels in the north, who have expressed sometimes concern and discontent toward the central government in Sanaa, and also there are very powerful tribes in the mountainous regions in Yemen, there are a lot of mountains in Yemen, and this has also shaped people who have a very strong will and who are not necessarily willing to submit to the central government. So the combination of these three elements makes Yemen a very specific case, and on top of that there is also the persistence of an Islamic fundamentalist movement in Yemen, also known recently as al-Qaeda in the Arabic peninsula.

Is it an Islamic movement or is it an islamist movement? I mean how radical those people are?

Yes, I refer to an Islamic radical movement, so it is an islamist movement. They can be pretty radical as well. They can sympathize with some of the goals of al-Qaeda on the world stage.

Some experts were telling me that the current unrest is obviously in the interests of those radicals, but do you agree with that?

Yes, it is true, that it can offer a good wind of opportunity, but depending on the political scene of the country where they operate it can have different consequences for a country which has rather strongly rooted secular traditions such as Tunisia, there is indeed a risk of a sudden expansion of islamist feelings, but the country seems to be already very much geared toward the western style democracy. So the advantage which islamists can get out of democracy is probably more limited than it is in the country like Yemen, where they are traditionally quite strong and they enjoy a powerful backing from the population. So that’s true, there is definitely a risk in Yemen that the islamists might make the most of the current events, if current president Saleh plays quite a lot, as Gaddafi did in Libya as well, or it still does it.

From what you were telling me I get the impression that perhaps the situation is not exactly favorable for democratic reforms in that country. Am I mistaken?

It is very difficult; I do not think that anyone has the opportunity and can feel that they can judge when a country is ready to have a democratic government, I do not think that anybody should state clearly this given that it is after all the country’s choice. However it is true that we are in a position to evaluate what the country could choose in terms of government if it was offered the choice, and it is sure that in the case of Yemen there is a risk that the islamists could play a more important role that they have been allowed in other countries. So there is definitely this risk, but then I think it is probably going one step too far to say that therefore Yemen should not have access to democracy, because ultimately it is the humanist decisions rather than any foreigners to decide what is the best type of government they want to get.

The wave of protests in Yemen is so much longer than the wave we were observing in Tunisia or in Egypt, because in those countries it was a matter of a couple of weeks, and here what we are witnessing now are almost two months of latened simmering unrest, if I may put it this way. So what could be the basic reason for that?

This is a very good point. One country which could explain in large part this situation and this difference is Libya, because in Libya we also are witnessing a process which is basically turning into a nasty civil war, as it seems to be taking shape at the moment; which means that it has also allowed Yemen to arrange some strategies and views of avoiding a resignation of President Saleh, and Saleh sends the opportunity for him to stay in power much more efficiently than if two or three dictators had fallen in the Arab world. So there were the dynamics and the domino effect which seems to work very well between Tunisia and Egypt, but then as the system seemed to stall in Libya, it allowed the Yemeni authorities to react and organize a counterattack in order to stay in power. So it can be put to a large extent to the Libyan example which demonstrates that in the end it was possible for the dictator to resist the pressure of the streets, and to a larger extent it is also due to the fact that the coordination of opposition is more difficult in a country like Yemen which is less connected and where Western-style education is less widely spread than it is in Tunisia or in Egypt as well. So it is a combination of factors. As usual, in this type of events there are always global factors, or at least Mediterranean factors, which we have seen clearly at work in the last few months, but there are also internal dynamics, there is a very high rate of literacy, first of all in Tunisia, but also the high rate of connections to modern means of communications prevailing in Egypt have favored a very quick resolution of the conflict, which Yemen is less prepared for.

What is the role of Saudi Arabia in the present situation in Yemen? What is their stance on it?

Well, the Saudis by definition do not want to get any further foyer, or areal of unrest developing in their zone, so therefore they are opposed to any radical regime change that might take place in Yemen. I think their position in favor of this status quo has been clearly demonstrated in Bahrain, when they decided to send the army to keep the country under its current leadership. So the Saudis by definition do not want the domino effect to spill over on the Arabian Peninsula for obvious reasons.

But evidently they never sent any troops to Yemen, or did they?

No, they didn’t send troops; they did send troops to Bahrain, where the problem still remains at the moment. This morning the Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa declared that Bahrain is in a very dangerous phase. So they are very busy with Bahrain, but have been less involved in Yemen, but definitely the Saudis do not want Yemen to fall as well, to fall prey to the democratic design or of a regime change.

Is there any chance that the country might fall apart the way its president is predicting?

It is always difficult to distinguish between what could be a bit like an electorialist argument and the reality. We heard for instance Colonel Gaddafi saying exactly the same about Libya and he predicted also that al-Qaeda would seize in the eastern Libya, and so the country would be divided. Now the country is effectively divided between the forces loyal to Gaddafi and rebel forces, so it seems that it is taking shape along the lines that have been predicted by Gaddafi earlier. So we cannot fully discard this risk, in particular because the country hasn’t got a long tradition as a unified country, it was divided into two until 1990. So yes, it seems to be a risk, although evaluating precisely how likely it is to happen remains a matter of debates of course.

As far as I understand the opposition wants President Saleh to leave, but then – is there any real successor to this position, any real alternative, wouldn’t it create a vacuum?

Well, that is always the problem, when there are dictatorial regimes which are suddenly brought down by the streets, the problem is that many people can claim to take power, but none of them manages to get to the critical mass which would allow them to be a credible leader, to replace the dictator. So we have seen it everywhere, in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya, the question of what comes next is always the defining moment in the revolutionary process, and I think that Yemen is no exception to this problem.

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