Stephen W. Day, Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?
Stephen Day (SD): This book had a long gestation period, so answering this question is a bit complicated. I would say the book has been more than ten years in the making. It originates with my doctoral thesis at Georgetown University. I started field research in Yemen in 1995, five years after the country’s national unification and two years after its first multi-party elections, which resulted in political stalemate leading to a brief civil war in 1994. Arriving after this war, I sought to understand Yemen’s troubled union, looking at inner political dynamics and disparities of economic and social power.
Back in 1990 and during the few years that followed, there were strong unionist sentiments in Yemen because of what happened on 22 May 1990. At the end of the Cold War, the socialist south (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) merged with the conservative north (Yemen Arab Republic) at the same time that East and West Germany united. Unlike Germany, however, Yemen’s unification was deeply flawed, resulting in costly internal fighting. In the spring of 1994, leaders of the former south Yemen briefly seceded before they were routed by the army of the north. Most of the old socialist ruling group fled into exile, while their property and resources were confiscated. Following the end of fighting on 7 July, President Ali Abdullah Salih arranged regular anniversary celebrations commemorating this date as “the Nation’s Great Triumph.” In reality, unionist sentiment was turned to the personal service of Salih and his ruling General People’s Congress party.
Between 1995 and 1998, I found multiple divisions spreading within the country’s social fabric. In terms of political economy, resource competition, and social and cultural production, the most important dynamics were definitely not as simple as the old north-south contest. Critical aspects of politics were driven by an east-west division, divisions between people living along the coasts and in mountain regions, as well as divisions between groups in the mineral-rich interior and densely populated agricultural zones. Yemen has a large, diverse population, unlike other states on the Arab peninsula. Its people are comparable to Iraqis and Syrians, both in terms of their number and their political and cultural sophistication. They also have a proud heritage as inheritors of an ancient civilization that rivals what is found in Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq. In short, this is a complex society.
When I presented my thesis in the late 1990s, I found strong objections to its emphasis on Yemen’s multiple regional divisions. I soon realized that US scholarship was strongly affected by the country’s early unionist sentiment. In the late 1990s, it was controversial to assert that Yemen was regionally divided along multiple lines. Scholars who had worked in the country during its north-south division preferred not to speak about regional divisions after 1990. The achievement of formal unity had presumably resolved the matter. By developing my thesis around this issue, I actually put my PhD degree at risk, because my thesis was nearly rejected in late 2000 and early 2001. It was considered politically misinformed. Yet all of my research had indicated that citizens in different regions of the country thought in regionally specific terms. I found this to be true in all provinces outside the highland mountains encircling the capital Sanaa.
After receiving my degree and beginning to teach in 2002, first at Indiana University and then at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, I continued following developments in Yemen. Like everyone else, however, I was caught up in the surreal developments of 9/11, the “war on terror,” the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and so on. I wrote and taught about these matters, including the ongoing trauma of Palestinians between 2000 and 2005. The latter was so important to what was happening in the Middle East because of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s use of America’s “war on terror” to further advance his own agendas, which were decades in the making. Throughout all of this time, my thesis about Yemen sat collecting dust. This gradually changed as various regional opposition movements surfaced inside the country.
Suddenly my PhD thesis gained new relevance because of active opposition spreading across different regions. I first noticed seeds of regional opposition in the summer of 2002, during a brief trip to the country. The preceding winter had seen the formation of a group called the “Public Forum for Sons of Southern and Eastern Provinces.” This group consisted of prominent individuals, including Faisal Bin Shamlan, who would later lead the country’s main opposition coalition, Joint Meetings Party (JMP). In 2006, Bin Shamlan and the JMP challenged President Salih in a fairly competitive presidential election. The strongest regional opposition had originated in the north two years earlier, by Zaydi youth members of the Huthi group in Sa‘da province, along the western border with Saudi Arabia. Their opposition grew into an intense armed rebellion between 2005 and 2009. The Huthi rebellion was actually a series of wars conducted by Salih’s army, leading to the deaths of thousands and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees.
Separate from the Huthi rebellion, the regime’s opponents in Aden started daily sit-ins and rallies in 2007. This became known as al-Hirak, or the “southern peace movement.” It spread quickly across the southern, eastern, and interior regions of the country. Some citizens in Yemen’s midland region, centering around the city of Taiz, voiced support for al-Hirak. For example, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Taiz, Tawakul Karman, was a supporter of al-Hirak. Among youth in Taiz and Sanaa, she replicated many of the same tactics of peaceful resistance. During 2008 and 2009, President Salih responded to al-Hirak with severe repression by state security forces. Scores were killed, hundreds were injured, and thousands were arrested and tortured. Violent trends soon surfaced among young al-Hirak activists, especially when a southern Islamist tribal leader, Shaykh Tarik al-Fadli, joined the movement in the middle of 2009.
For the first time, I began to consider reopening my Georgetown thesis and developing a book manuscript. Yemen was highlighted more regularly in US media reports about acts of terrorism linked to al-Qaeda. In September 2008, the American embassy in Sanaa was hit by a coordinated assault involving multiple participants in bomb-rigged vehicles. Then in December 2009, the Nigerian student Umar Faruq Abdul Mutallab tried to blow up a jetliner over Detroit, using a chemical explosive he received in Yemen. The following month, January 2010, US and British officials arranged a London meeting to discuss security concerns about Yemen. At this time, there was a lot of talk about al-Hirak and the Huthis creating an unstable environment where al-Qaeda could thrive. I felt a sense of urgency to publish my book because a number of writers covering Yemen from this “failed-state-breeds-terrorism” angle were dredging up materials from my dusty PhD dissertation.
To make a long story short, my book originates before events in Yemen in 2011. I had first presented a draft of my manuscript to Cambridge University Press in October of the previous year. In my letter of introduction, I proposed a book about “the collapse of Yemen’s government.” This was two months before Muhammad Bouazizi’s desperate act in Tunisia set in motion a transcontinental wave of street protests across North Africa and the Middle East. By March 2011, Salih was destined to follow Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, and eventually Muammar al-Qaddhafi, so Cambridge offered me a publishing contract. Later, I was able to update the conclusion, including a description of steps taken to form the recently empowered transitional government after Salih stepped down in November.
J: What particular issues and literatures does it address?
SD: My book fits into a category of new studies in the field of contemporary history, politics, culture, religion, and international relations concerning the underlying dynamics of the 2011 Arab democratic spring. I like to draw a distinction between Yemen and other countries involved in the Arab spring. Readers of my book will learn that Yemen stands out as a unique participant in this dramatic moment of world history. In many ways, the Yemeni people should be considered the champions of last year’s street uprisings. As the months passed by, Yemenis remained the most disciplined protesters without exception.
Among other countries in the Arab world, including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, the massive uprisings came as a total surprise. At the beginning of the year, there was practically no anticipation that rulers in these countries could be overthrown in less than twelve months. By contrast, Yemen’s president entered 2011 amidst widespread predictions that the entire scaffolding of his regime might collapse at any minute. Salih had already endured four years of open rebellion. The previous year, in January 2010, when US and British officials met in London, there were genuine fears Yemen could become the next Somalia, another failed state with no central authority. This was nearly twelve months before events in Tunisia. After the emergency meeting in London, US and British officials held additional sessions of their new “Friends of Yemen” group, which eventually included members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Throughout 2010, they tried to prop up Salih with greater foreign aid.
For all of these reasons, the circumstances inside Yemen as it entered 2011 were notably different from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. One interesting aspect of Yemen’s massive street protests is how they created new possibilities to overcome the country’s regional divisions, and possibly avoid a complete breakdown of national unity. In other words, there is a second positive dimension to Yemen’s 2011 uprising, besides how the people succeeded in removing a military authoritarian leader. This dimension is how the uprising in the streets afforded Yemenis a chance to rebuild their flawed national union. Before 2011, it seemed almost inevitable that Yemeni unity would fail. In Sa‘da and areas north of Sanaa, the Huthi rebellion persisted, while supporters of al-Hirak in the southern and eastern provinces had started to wave the former south Yemeni flag. Once again, they were demanding secession. Even groups in central desert regions began seeking autonomy. This changed in early 2011.
By the early spring, supporters of al-Hirak in Aden and other southern cities and towns stopped waving the southern flag and adopted the chants of protesters in Sanaa and Taiz. Many of these chants were the same ones heard on the streets of Tunis and Cairo. The shared language and rituals of these street protests had a unifying effect in Yemen, as citizens felt called upon to participate in something greater than their regionally specific causes. Even Huthi rebels joined students in the streets around Sanaa University to chant slogans. All citizens realized that they had strength in numbers. If they could unite, then they had a better chance of overthrowing Salih’s regime. If they remained divided, then this would play to the regime’s advantage. Many protest leaders in Sanaa cautioned supporters of al-Hirak and the Huthis that Salih would attempt to exploit regional divisions. Indeed, Salih warned of threats to unity, stating that if he left office the country would fragment into warring states.
Throughout Salih’s thirty-four years in power, he was a master of divide-and-rule tactics. He constantly exploited regional and tribal divisions to stay in power. Finally, in 2011, his gamesmanship had caught up with him. Now that he is deposed, it remains unclear whether national unity can be guaranteed. Supporters of al-Hirak and the Huthis rejected the GCC-sponsored deal granting Salih immunity from prosecution for war crimes. They also boycotted the national referendum on 21 February 2012, designed to give popular legitimacy to the transitional president, Abd al-Rabo Mansour Hadi. When voting took place, al-Hirak activists raided polling centers in Aden and other areas of the south, stealing ballot boxes and setting fire to government offices. There was also renewed fighting north of Sanaa by Huthi rebels. Thus, the transition in Yemen is fraught with difficulties and challenges. In the first week of March, tragic suicide bombings and massacres occurred in the capital of Hadramaut province in the east, and Abyan province near Aden.
In carrying out the analysis in my book, the main literature that I draw upon concerns national identity and state formation. The influential work of Benedict Anderson in his 1993 book Imagined Communities is important. In addition, I refer to the work of political scientists, and a few anthropologists, who discuss the importance of resource competition in the formation and maintenance of group identities. As I argue in my book, united Yemen is an “imagined community” that only exists as long as state leaders succeed at sharing revenues drawn from scarce resources. When fair revenue sharing does not exist, as happened in the late years of Salih’s rule, then feelings of competition over resources grow more intense. It is important to understand how the competition over Yemen’s scarce resources contributed to the spread of regionally based opposition groups before 2011. These regional groups gained strength because they could rally support from locals who shared grievances against Salih’s ruling group in Sanaa.
Lisa Wedeen wrote an important 2008 book on Yemen, Peripheral Visions (University of Chicago Press). At the time, Wedeen noted that widespread opposition to Salih’s regime had the potential to strengthen national unity. Instead of grievances about corruption and the inefficient use of national resources fragmenting the population, she proposed that it could just as easily bring the population together, because everyone shared the same misfortune and unease. As I demonstrate in my book, this certainly became true in 2011 when people in many regions united to remove Salih and seek change in the hope that a new government would better represent their interests. But there were also temporary strategic reasons for regional groups to unite in the removal of Salih. Whether these groups will continue to be united, now that Salih has been removed, is a separate issue. I suggest in my book that Yemen will likely remain a fragmented nation with rival regional interests in competition with one another. The sources of competition are simply too high. And if one studies Yemen’s political, cultural, and international history, it is easy to understand the reasons for divisions across the land.
[The following excerpt from the Conclusion of Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen describes the prevailing thinking in 2011 among protest leaders in Sanaa and the international diplomats who negotiated President Salih`s resignation.]
Before Salih resigned, leaders of the protests in Sanaa wanted to believe that people from all regions of the country could work together and move forward to build a brighter, common future. To admit otherwise risked creating a political advantage for Salih, who always claimed that he was the only person capable of maintaining Yemeni unity via his old divide and rule tactics....Yet Yemenʼs internal divisions remain an undeniable fact, which must be addressed by the countryʼs future political leadership. Even UN diplomat Jamal Ben Omar admitted this point after his successful shuttle diplomacy succeeded in getting Salih to sign the GCC deal. When pressed to explain why a political settlement in Yemen had taken so long compared to Tunisia and Egypt, he had a prepared answer based on long experience. Unlike the latter two countries, where the 2011 protests mainly pitted a united opposition against an unpopular regime, Ben Omar said “there are multiple dimensions to Yemenʼs political problems."
A second body of literature that I draw upon concerns foreign policy matters, specifically questions of foreign intervention and post-Cold War forces creating “failed states” around the globe. I tried to write a book addressing domestic and international forces because I want this contemporary history to appeal to readers interested in both. In reality, one can hardly discuss Yemen without considering international forces, because the country’s politics have long been penetrated by outsiders. Yemen may not have been invaded and occupied for long periods of time (the exception being Britain’s colony in Aden after the 1830s, and later protection treaties with groups in the west and east). Yet, for decades, it has been flooded with foreign money from different sources, each of which buys influence over government and non-government decision makers, especially the tribal shaykhs. This has long been true of Saudi money, but there was also US and EU money competing with Russian, Chinese, Libyan, Iraqi, Iranian, and other Gulf Arab money.
The literature on foreign policy and failed states is important for studies of post-Cold War history and the rise of non-state groups like al-Qaeda. I think the topic of al-Qaeda in Yemen has been overblown, but it obviously demands better understanding. Misunderstandings about al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen led the US to pursue a flawed program of drone warfare in the 2000s. This actually contributed to President Salih’s removal, after Wikileaks released confidential US diplomatic cables in 2010, revealing Salih’s complicity with a deadly US drone attack in late 2009 that killed three dozen civilians, mainly women and children. Few people appreciate the parallels between Yemen and Afghanistan, ones that have existed since the late Cold War. Like Afghanistan during the 1970s and 1980s, Yemen was contested between the Soviet Union and a powerful neighboring US ally: Pakistan, in the case of Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, in the case of Yemen.
Beginning in the 1960s, but especially in the 1970s and 1980s, the US favored Saudi and Pakistani Islamization of their neighbors as a means to prevent the spread of Soviet influence. In both cases, this led to the defeat of Marxists in Yemen and Afghanistan during the early 1990s. But it also led to symptoms of “state failure,” and violent blowback against the United States in the form of al-Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden’s followers bombed the billion-dollar USS Cole in Aden harbor in October 2000, nearly a year before the 9/11 attacks. Earlier in the 1990s, Bin Laden’s followers were involved in the assassination of south Yemeni socialist officials. This happened with the consent and/or support of military commanders close to President Salih. Members of Salih’s inner circle had close ties at the time to individuals linked to Bin Laden. My book explores this matter with reference to Yemen’s complex internal politics, in order to reveal how US foreign policies during the late Cold War and post-Cold War years contributed to the approach of “state failure” in Yemen.
J: How does this work connect to your previous research and writing?
SD: As already mentioned, Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen is partially based on my previous research, although much of this research has never been published because it comes from my 2001 PhD dissertation. The book is actually a compilation of materials I have been collecting for more than fifteen years. In this sense, it offers the reader a comprehensive analysis of Yemen, its people, and their politics and culture, covering the past three or four decades. This historical approach is absolutely critical to understanding what happened in Yemen in 2011.
The introduction and first chapter of my book comes largely from new research over the past two years. The next five chapters integrate materials from my PhD dissertation, explaining my particular thesis about Yemen’s multiple regional divisions (chapters two and three), and showing how these divisions shaped the troubled unification of north and south Yemen in the 1990s (chapters three and four), including the brief civil war in 1994 (chapter five). Chapter six derives from the concluding sections of my dissertation, which examined efforts made by President Salih in the late 1990s to consolidate his battlefield gains in 1994.
Chapter seven is largely new material that I wrote specifically to advance the book’s analysis of US foreign policy and its role in shaping Yemeni politics—in particular, American policy after al-Qaeda’s attacks on the USS Cole in 2000, and then the 9/11 attacks. In the fall of 2001, President George W. Bush demanded Salih’s full cooperation in the new US “war on terrorism.” This undermined the legitimacy of Yemen’s president, especially in 2003, when Bush sent American troops into Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was deeply unpopular in Yemen. Outside Iraq itself, and possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan, no other country witnessed as much street anger and violence as Yemen. Initially, public rage was directed at the US and British embassies in Sanaa, but when Salih ordered his security to fire live ammunition on the protesters, the public inevitably turned against the regime. From this point in 2003, Salih’s regime became increasingly destabilized.
Chapter eight explains the growth of regional opposition movements in Yemen during the mid-2000s. Part of this chapter comes from essays I first published in Middle East Policy and the Middle East Journal, as well as a chapter in the 2010 Carnegie Endowment book, edited by the late Christopher Boucek, entitled Yemen on the Brink. Chapter nine largely consists of new material from 2009 to 2011, when President Salih failed to placate regional opposition, and gradually lost territorial control. The chapter ends with the 2011 street uprisings, covering developments through the bombing of Salih’s palace mosque in early June, when he was badly injured and evacuated to a hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Some of this material was covered in articles I published in Jadaliyya.
Developments in the last half of 2011 are described in the book’s Conclusion, including dramatic moments when Yemen’s youth and women showed tremendous courage in the streets. The Conclusion also describes Salih’s return in September amidst the heaviest armed fighting in Sanaa; Salih’s signing of the GCC-sponsored agreement in November; his replacement by Vice President Hadi; and the selection of a transitional prime minister sympathetic to young protesters demanding change. I offer a few prescriptions of what concerned citizens, both inside and outside the country, should do to meet the tremendous challenges facing Yemen. This is a country caught in a perfect storm of political, economic, social, and environmental crises. It deserves the full attention of people in neighboring countries and around the world.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what impact would you like it to have?
SD: I hope to reach three different audiences: two among specialists, and one among non-specialists. First, the book is primarily written for non-specialist students of Middle East politics, because I hope it will be adopted for use in college and university courses across many disciplines. The book includes an extensive index and bibliography, as well as a chronology of key events, and lists of key names and abbreviations; in addition, there are instructive data tables, four maps, and twenty photographs, many of which I took during visits to the country. When I completed the book, I hoped it would be useful for students of the 2011 street protests and, more generally, anyone interested in regime-opposition politics in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Yemen is a critically important country in both fields, and this will remain true for the foreseeable future. I hope my book will become a standard text on Yemeni politics.
Second, the book is intended for specialists who write about Yemen, and the Middle East more generally, because of the novelty of my analysis of the country’s multiple regional divisions, distinct from the old north-south division. During my discussions in the 1990s with citizens who lived on one or the other side of this old border, I found that they often referred to the importance of these multiple regional divisions. Scholars who wrote about north and south Yemen before unity in 1990 also mentioned these divisions in books they published in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet after 1990, the topic was largely dropped. Often what happened was that scholars of the former north interpreted the country’s national unity from the perspective of rulers in Sanaa, while scholars of the former south interpreted it from the perspective of exiled rulers from Aden. As a result, political analysis suffered from unintended regional biases. This was particularly true of how Yemen’s 1994 civil war was interpreted in books published as late as the 2000s. My book takes the focus off north-south divisions, and offers a new way of looking at the country’s unity politics in the 1990s and 2000s.
Third, the book is intended to impact specialists of US foreign policy inside Yemen, and more generally, US policies of counterterrorism and theories about “failed states” around the world. While these matters are a lesser element of my book, I think there are important lessons to draw about each of them. This is especially true of my thesis about Yemen’s multiple regional divisions. If, as I suggest in the book, these multiple divisions are historically deep-rooted in Yemen, and they continue to be a significant factor in social-economic-political dynamics, then the operating assumption of US national security in Yemen is flawed. What is this operating assumption? Namely, that the “defeat of al-Qaeda,” or if one prefers, the ending of militant religious extremism, depends on the maintenance of Yemeni unity under a strong central government propped up by foreign aid. Conventional American and Western thinking has considered a strong central government in Sanaa essential to prevent al-Qaeda from gaining a foothold in Yemen. American and Western policies still operate as though these are opposite sides of the same coin, an either/or option.
There is a tremendous irony to this aspect of American and Western policy in Yemen, because the dominant social and political forces in Sanaa (namely, the leading tribal shaykhs based inside the highland mountains) were never suited to play this role. The dominant forces in Sanaa and the wider highland region were the most destabilizing forces in the country, feeding off tribal rivalries while forging alliances with militant Islamic groups. Indeed, back in the 1970s and 1980s, this was the consequence of US-Saudi interference in Yemen during the late Cold War. Much of Western scholarship about the old north Yemen, both political science and anthropology, idealized the highland tribal shaykhs as democratic actors. The most ironic part is that the former socialist regime in south Yemen, operating from its capital in Aden, was always a better model of centralized state authority. The primary policy of the Marxist government in Aden was to restrain religious influences, while enforcing the rule of law in order to overcome the destabilizing effects of tribalism. Salih’s ruling party in Sanaa never came close to these objectives. Indeed, the US and Saudi Arabia backed Salih to defeat the southern socialist government, thus ending the influence of policy ideas from Aden.
J: What other projects are you working on right now?
SD: I have three current projects. One is a book about historical precedents to the 2011 revolutions. I am also collaborating in making a film on the same topic. In addition, I am working on a book about critical flaws in US foreign policy during the decade after 9/11.
[This second excerpt from the Conclusion of Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen concerns the wider history of Yemeni regionalism, both before and after unification in 1990, and the role it played in President Salih`s forced resignation.]
Yemenis never fully recovered from the social and economic crises in their early unity years. The wounds inflicted by the 1994 civil war left deep scars across the face of Yemen’s population. Just as the Yemeni landscape is scarred by impressive geological features, towering mountains, and vast canyons, the Yemeni people have always been divided along regional lines. This has been true for thousands of years, and it will remain true for the near future....the balancing of different regional and tribal groups, and playing games of divide and rule, were standard practices in Sanaa throughout the twentieth century. This was true before 1990 when Salih ruled the northern YAR. It was also true during the reign of the Zaydi imams before the 1962 revolution. But something profound changed in 1990, when unification nearly tripled the size of territory administered by the central government in Sanaa. President Salih immediately stumbled into a costly civil war in 1994. Then in the last half of the 1990s, he struggled to legitimize his military control over southern and eastern regions. During the next decade, he ultimately proved incapable of governing united Yemen....
The problem President Salih encountered with national unification after 1990 was that unity increased the number of regional groups vying for pieces of the political pie, consisting of various national resources. This brought additional pressure on Salih to satisfy a larger set of political demands....National unification with the south added at least three more groups to the political mix: stalwarts of the Yemeni Socialist Party in the southwest region around Aden; various disgruntled elements in the mid-southern region of Abyan and Shabwa provinces; and influential, highly resourceful individuals in the eastern region of Hadramaut. Yet the strongest indication that President Salih lost his way in the 2000s was not his mishandling of relations with any of these groups. Instead, it was the rise of powerful opposition inside his own highland region, originating with traditional Zaydi interests in Sa‘da during the rebellion of Husayn al-Huthi’s “Believing Youth” organization.
[Both excerpts from Stephen W. Day, Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union. © 2012 by Cambridge University Press. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]