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Divided They Stand

Yemen’s fractured protest movement.

Sana’a, Yemen—On a recent rainy afternoon at the anti-government protest in Yemen’s capital, an old tribesman, dressed in a long white robe belted at the waist with a foot-long dagger, danced hand-to-hand with a young man wearing tight jeans and a khaki jacket, more Williamsburg than Arabian Peninsula. The two men hopped and whirled in tight circles, their shoulders draped in Yemen’s tricolor flag, their bare feet scuffing in unison on the dusty asphalt. In time with the music, the old tribesman brandished his dagger, slicing circles in the wet air, while the young man, daggerless, shook a red index card above his head like a referee, a potent symbol to anyone familiar with the universal language of soccer. “Red card!” he yelled in English. “Ali Abdullah Saleh, you’re out!”

Walking the length of the mile-long intersection in front of Sana’a University—the epicenter of the anti-government protests and a place that resembles something between a music festival, a campaign headquarters, and a battleground—I’d gotten used to seeing such incongruous scenes. Just a few days before, I’d stumbled into a beige, wedding-style tent, where about three dozen protesters were sharing plates of chicken and rice. Upon discovering that I was a journalist, they erupted in a cacophony of opinions, thrusting their laminated ID cards at me, hoping to get their names in the paper. This group included a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party, an imam, an English teacher, and a member of Al Islah, Yemen’s Islamist party. One young man, Yahya Mekhlafi, a political science student who quoted Montesquieu by heart, sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Thabit Hassan Al Sakkaf, a former tank driver who hadn’t made it past elementary school. “We are all one now,” says Mekhlafi in English. “Brothers,” confirms Al Sakkaf in Arabic.

For 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled this fractious place by playing Yemen’s factions off one another, arming rival tribes and encouraging local conflicts—a Machiavellian two-step that he once famously dubbed “dancing on the heads of snakes.” In the past two months, however, a startling array of Yemeni citizens have gathered in huge protests to oust him—tribesmen and hipsters, socialists and radical Islamists, feminists and separatists, and rebels and former military officers. “We have figured out Saleh’s game,” a young protester named Anwar Al Kabodi tells me. “He is our only enemy now.” But, while this newfound solidarity has made Yemen’s revolution possible, it may also, in the long run, prove to be its greatest weakness.

I was deported from Yemen in March, along with other Western reporters. During my time there—nearly a year altogether—I sometimes found it hard to think of this nation of 24 million people as a single country. Driving south from the Saudi Arabian border, through Sana’a and the eastern desert, through the painted canyons of the Hadramaut, and down to the rugged coastline along the Arabian Sea, I have seen people’s relationships to the central government, to Islam, and to traditional tribal law change dramatically within the space of a few hours. A post-Saleh Yemen would somehow have to be constructed out of these conflicting cultures and political forces.

The protests, as in Egypt and Tunisia, were jump-started by small groups of disaffected young people, mostly from the western cities of Taiz, Aden, and Sana’a, who felt alienated by the corruption and economic stagnation fostered by Saleh’s government. While these groups haven’t formed a single organization, they share a common goal: turning their homeland into a transparent and representative democracy. Last month, at the protests, a human rights lawyer described to me his vision of a pluralistic, tolerant Yemen. After a while, though, I could barely hear him over the sound of an Islamist preacher, his voice amplified by a crackling megaphone, giving a sermon about how Yemen should be governed by sharia law.

Many of the young protesters I spoke to feared that their movement would be co-opted by ultra-conservative Islamists— that is, the popular Al Islah Party, ubiquitous Salafi organizations, and sympathetic politicians, tribal leaders, and military officers. One day, I watched Sheik Abd Majid Al Zindani, a radical cleric who has been named a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department, climb onto the protesters’ central stage and give a bombastic speech envisioning Yemen as an Islamist caliphate. Over the years, Zindani has advocated for morality patrols, rallied against legislation that would have banned child marriage, and threatened “global jihad” against the United States. His words elicited both cheering and visible discomfort. “They’re going to think we’re all terrorists,” whispers Yahya Ali Ali, a student at Sana’a University. “Not all of us have this opinion.”

Another major force is Yemen’s powerful tribes, who have for decades sustained themselves on a well-greased patronage system. In his heyday, Saleh provided important sheikhs with cash, cars, weapons, and an occasional school or paved road in their region in exchange for their loyalty. This system worked rather well until this past decade, when Saleh all but ran out of money. In late February, I met Hamid Al Ahmar, a wealthy businessman in his palatial, Mediterranean villa-style mansion in Sana’a. Hamid is the brother of Sadiq Al Ahmar, who heads Yemen’s most powerful tribal coalition, the Hashid Confederation. “We believe in a constitution in Yemen and institutions,” Hamid told me. “It should be a good democracy.” Yet sheikhs like Hamid Al Ahmar only stand to lose from such a system. They would, however, profit from having a new, wealthier strongman with whom to do business. “It’s still in the tribes’ interest to have a leader who is dependent on their demands,” says Abdul Ghani Al Eryani, a Yemeni political analyst. “It’s clear they do not foresee a democracy where they will be equal to every other person in the country.”

Then there are the local tribal sheikhs, like 27-year-old Nasser Saber from Marib—a gas-rich region of impoverished villages, most of which lack electricity. Justice is dispensed by a council of local men according to a mix of ultraconservative tribal traditions and sharia law. I met Saber outside a hole-in-the-wall tea shop a block away from the protest. He came to Sana’a in the name of democracy, but his true priority is to provide his people with the services they need. He shares common ground with the youth movement and with powerful Islamist factions in the opposition.

There are regional divisions, too. The most obvious is in the south, where the tribes are less dominant: The region was an independent socialist republic until 1990, when it unified with Saleh’s north Yemen. In 1994, the south tried to secede from the new union, but Saleh and his long-time ally Major General Ali Muhsin Al Ahmar recruited tribes and Islamists as mercenaries to brutally crush the socialists. For the last few years, much of the south has been outside of Saleh’s control; it’s here that Anwar Al Awlaki is believed to be hiding. For southern leaders, forming a government alongside tribal sheikhs and Islamists will be tough. Making matters more difficult, the southerners’ nemesis, Al Ahmar, publicly joined the opposition in March.

Perhaps the most unpredictable player in this already volatile scene is an emboldened Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, one of the terrorist organization’s strongest regional arms. The group has planned several attacks in Saudi Arabia and the United States, including, most recently, a thwarted plot last October to send bombs in UPS and FedEx packages to Chicago synagogues. Any new government in Yemen would have to contend with the group’s growing influence.

In Sana’a, some of the young activists like to hang out at a posh coffee shop with a walled garden overflowing with bougainvillea. I spent an afternoon there with Sarah, a 23-year-old in a blue hijab. She asked that I not use her last name to protect her and her family. Sarah has a degree in sociology and cited Winston Churchill in her defense of a free society. Like many other young people, she is wary of the Islamist clerics and tribesmen who have rallied behind the youth’s cause. “The tribes are motivated by blood, revenge, and power, that’s all,” she explains. “We are fighting for democracy beside people who don’t have any interest in democracy.”

Haley Sweetland Edwards is a journalist living in Tbilisi, Georgia. She recently lived in Yemen on a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. This article originally ran in the April 28, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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