Yemen’s Intifada

Jane Novak looks at the internal problems in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. Recent unrest may signal a renewed round of fighting and perhaps civil war.

Demonstrators gather in Radfan, Yemen October 14, 2007, the day after four protest organizers were killed. Click to view.

Yemen is facing instability unseen since its 1994 civil war. A war with Shiite rebels in the northern Sa’ada province left over 50,000 internal refugees. The rebellion ended in June but threatens to re-ignite as neither side has fully implemented the cease-fire conditions. The political and economic marginalization of vast segments of society contributed to the rebellion as did endemic governmental corruption, lack of basic services and draconian security measures. These factors are also the catalyst for widespread protests in southern Yemen, some of which attracted over 100,000 protesters. Ten protesters were killed, allegedly by security forces, and many were beaten and arrested.

Hegemony not integration

Unrest in southern Yemen has its roots in northern hegemony following the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen. The Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), which formerly ruled the south, was marginalized following Yemen’s 1994 civil war. Dr. Aidroos Naser al Naqeeb, head of the YSP’s Parliamentary block, said, “The YSP Central Committee indicated that the South was treated as the spoils of war including land, people, companies and wealth. The YSP also noted the violence against the current protesters reflects the type of politics which has dominated after the outcome of the war.”

Post-war reconciliation between North and South was thwarted by the corruption among the northern oligarchy and by the installation of President Saleh’s relatives in many top military and security posts. Successive constitutional amendments centralized power in the executive, leading to a de facto merger between the ruling party and the state, both headed by Saleh.

Since May, protests spread across Aden, Dhalie, Lahj, Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadramout, organized by former southern military officers. They claim they were punitively discharged following the civil war at stipends well below sustenance level. Civil and military southern pensioners number over 100,000. Broader southern grievances include the appropriation and theft of commercial, residential, and public land by powerful northerners. State employment is an area of perceived systematic discrimination. Ubiquitous military camps and checkpoints are another sore spot.

Broad discontent finds its voice

Civil unrest in the south triggered a national outpouring of discontent. Thousands of protesters in Taiz held aloft water bottles and bread. In the oil producing Marib governorate, demonstrators demanded a share of oil revenue, jobs and development funding. In Amran, north of the capital, ten thousand tribesmen demanded governmental reform. Teachers, students, doctors, pharmacists, trade unions, unemployed youth, journalists and kidney patients have held individual and sometimes joint protests in the capital, Sana’a.

One common complaint among the various interest groups is rising prices. Inflation in the poverty stricken nation was over 20 percent in 2006. Hoarding by the domestic wheat monopoly exacerbated international price increases on wheat in 2007, and higher priced loaves of bread shrank in size. Cooking gas cylinders increased in price from YR400 to YR1000.

Discontent also stems from the failure to fully implement the 2005 Wages Strategy, intended to buffer a reduction in oil subsidies. The reform dose was to be accompanied by corruption control and a reduction in governmental spending. However, an YR278 billion supplemental 2007 budget appropriation was pegged to the costs of the northern rebellion, continued oil subsidies and the extra month salary promised to government workers during President Saleh’s presidential campaign. The regime reinstated the draft to counter unemployment, although many citizens complain of being excluded from military service by domicile. Few top officials were prosecuted for misconduct although corruption takes 23 percent of the national budget.

November 30, demonstration in Aden, Yemen. Click to view.

Predictable Response

Despite the high tenor of demands for relief and reform, Saleh’s regime is responding with the same tactics that spurred the unrest. Riot police fired live rounds and deployed tear gas and water cannons against protesters. Dozens of oppositionists were arrested including the YSP’s Hassan Ba-oom and head of the military pensioners association, General Nasser Al-Nawbah. Both were charged with treason and faced the death penalty, launching another round of protests. The pair was later released; however twenty other political leaders arrested. Hundreds remain in prison following the Sa’ada War, including children.

The non-governmental media is under assault. Journalist Abdulkarim al Khaiwani faces the death penalty for publishing war news that “demoralized the military”. Security forces prevented Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya reporters from covering the southern protests. The YSP’s news website was blocked. Conversely, the regime uses the broadcast media to stir public sentiment, airing an Eid sermon that declared the protesting retirees no longer Muslims.

President Saleh is also attempting to manage public sentiment by promising reform and restitution; however public trust is extremely low. Eight thousand southern officers were reinstated. Colonel Naser Saleh Abdul Qawi reported that one condition of reinstatement was a pledge to foreswear peaceful political activity. Saleh proposed constitutional amendments to enhance local rule, but a recent electoral “reform” stacked the electoral commission in favor of the president’s omnipotent ruling party. In a Ramadan speech, Saleh downplayed the “fabricated crisis”. However, presidential advisor and former Prime Minister, Abdel Bajammal threatened to revoke a weapons ban and re-arm the northern citizenry to face the southern protesters.

Despite regional polarization, northern monopolization of military assets makes civil war unlikely. If oil production drops sharply, as predicted, nationwide discontent will increase. However, a disorganized, splintered citizenry decreases the risk of revolution. Yemen’s opposition parties have yet to establish internal process of representation. Yemen’s 2009 parliamentary elections may unify the citizenry in rejectionism if the process is as unfair as the last presidential election. If instability increases, military commanders may move to protect their interests through a coup.

Jane Novak writes at Armies of Liberation can be reached at [email protected]

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  • anand says:

    Jane, thanks for this important article. Yemen doesn’t get nearly enough attention. And what starts in Yemen doesn’t end in Yemen.
    What is so sad is that Yemen is extremely poor and small. A moderate amount of foreign aid could make a big difference in Yemen.

  • Jane says:

    Thanks very much for the nice welcome.
    Yemen is so wracked with corruption and institutional incompetence that foreign aid is often unspent. 1.8 billion in interest bearing soft loans is sitting idle. The regime only spent 31% of grants, causing donors to reduce allocations. Japan recently said that they would give more funds but often no one is there to meet the Japanese experts at the scheduled time.
    Meanwhile half of Yemeni kids are stunted from chronic hunger, half never attend school, half the population is illiterate and the average marriage age for girls is about 14 and the average family has seven kids.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the – Web Reconnaissance for 01/03/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  • Neo says:

    I’m a bit late on this, but I have been busy lately. Maybe someone will read it.
    Most people tend to think of Afghanistan as the birthplace and proving ground for militant Islam’s jihad against westernized ideas and westernized Middle Muslim political states. In Yemen there were two earlier significant wars fought, the first North Yemen war 1963-1967 pitting a traditionalist royalist and Shiite religious faction against a military coup with socialist ideological leanings. This war quickly expanded into a regional standoff with Nasser’s Egypt backing the military coup and the Saudi state sponsoring Shiite royalist and religious faction. The Saudi faction was also the first major action of the Muslim Brotherhood that had been expelled by Nasser from Egypt and had taken up with the Wahabi establishment in Saudi Arabia.
    The conflict in Yemen can be partly seen as a cultural clash between inward looking rural elements of the population verses outward looking urban and coastal elements of the population. This internal conflict was leveraged by both revolutionary socialist backers backing one side and traditionalist Islamist elements backing the other. Egypt pored troops into the country as resistance stiffened in the mountains and became a expensive standoff for the Egyptian army. This war is known regionally as Egypt’s Vietnam and played a role in undermining Nasser and weakening the Egyptian army prior the 1967 Israeli Six Day War.
    Much like the Pashtu culture of the Afghanistan – Pakistan boarder, the mountain people in Yemen have a very inward looking insular culture that tends to resist the outside world. This is especially prevalent in the remote mountainous north of Yemen and the inward flowing wadi’s along the periphery of the Empty Quarter. The people of these regions have been central to Yemen’s ongoing unrest for the last half century at least. Bid Laden’s family and many of his most trusted cohorts have ancestral ties to these regions.
    Old conflicts and new ones get tied together. The United States had very little to do with the North Yemen war other than a strategic interest in keeping direct Soviet support out. The south part of Yemen, Aden was still under British protection and while many in remote areas of the south participated in the North Yemen war, the war didn’t immediately spill over into the south.
    The second Yemen war between North and South started as the British pulled out of Aden in 1967. With European colonialist interests pulling out and less resolute American interests diluted by both Vietnam and the shifting political climate, allowed direct Soviet intervention throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The Marxist NLF faction with direct Soviet backing seized control of South Yemen. The second war in Yemen became a backwater of both the Soviet-Western conflict and the Islamist vs. Established Westernized Arab countries. On the ground, it was a mess of regional interests, suscession conflicts, and both Islamist and Marxist revolutionary groups vying for power. The Soviet KGB that had agressively used the post Vietnam 70’s to start and stoke hundreds of small scale conflicts throughout Asia and Africa now found themselves massively overextended and had little futher interest in a backwater like Yemen. With the end of the Brezhnev era support for many such mini-conflicts ended. The North with the backing of Saudi and Muslim Brotherhood interests eventually won than also quickly lost interest in a largly Shiite country, leaving Yemen much the same conflicted, factional, impoverished nation it had been at the start.
    A few points can be made about the conflict. Significantly, neither the internal conflict or regional conflict had much of anything direct to do with the United States. Our only significant role was strategic in blocking dirrect Soviet intervention in the region. This broke down in the late 60 and especially the 70’s as direct American influence in the region waned. Our influence in the region was agressively bolstered by the Reagan administration in the 80’s after the disasterous Islamist takeover in Iran and the many equally disasterous Maxist revolutionary wars across Africa. Keeping the lid on the simmering Arab – Isreali conflict also became a long term policy goal of both Democratic and Repulican administrations.
    The jihadist element of the conflict never really took on much of an specifically anti-European and anti-American flavor. Rather it was more about regional ideological influence and verious revolutionary movements using the local conflict as a stage for carrying out their own ambitions. Once the conflict was over no-one really had much interest in the locals.
    For those who discount cooperation between Sunni and Shiite political groups this should show that there has been periods of cooperation from the very beginning. The two religious sects will readily cooperate if it serves their interests. The war in Lebanon is an even more conviluted example with sides changing alliences and enemies becoming allies only to become enemies again as the war goes on. Alliences and wars in the Middle east make for strange bedfellows. Things have never been nicely divided along sectarian lines.
    Those that think that the regions problems all stem from our relationship with Israel, Zionist influence, and oil are horribly ignorant of what has been going on in the region over the last 60 years. The Israeli problem is but one facet of the regions many problems. It is a very significant problem, but both it and American influence have become cause celebrity for all the regions many problems. If you think our greed for oil is at the center of the regions problems our ties to the regions problem are much more extensive than that. The Middle Easts politics and problems have always been tied to the west throughout history. We have never gotten away from that fact since the beginning. Never! A couple nasty little wars in Yemen have consequences that go far beyond the confines of that region. The political views of those that bombed the world trade center where in part set by the North Yemen war their families having participated in that war. Their jihad in part defeated Nasser than long conflicts against the Soviet union played a role in it’s demise. Why not bring the downfall of Israel, the United States, Europe, or India by similar mean?. The Islamist movement has goals and plans of it’s own that exist regardless of American regional policy. We aren’t the cause of the movement, we’re in the way!
    For those who would prefer that we get out of the way, and stay out of the regions conflicts, my answer is we have tried that approach many times too. Sometimes that approach works, often it doesn’t. The track record isn’t so good. The regions problems if left to themselves don’t tend to pass, but rather accumulate, and other nations find themselves in the position where they either have to intervene or have the problem thrust upon them on someone else’s terms. Over the long term one will quickly find ones economic and national interests greatly diminished as well as our countries position in the world deeply eroded.
    Sorry about my little history lesson devolving into somewhat of a crude polemic, but I thought I would make a few points about how seemingly small regional problems eventually come around to effect the larger world. I also wanted to show a little of how small regional wars and larger strategic policy are connected.

  • Neo says:

    I hate it when I botch last minute changes.
    “westernized Middle Muslim political states”
    Try “westernized Muslim states”

  • Jane says:

    Wow, I have to read that again. The first time was very interesting.

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