Having spent time in both Yemen and Egypt, I feel compelled to explore the similarities and differences between the two countries. Overall, I am convinced that, despite the similarities between these countries, it will be the differences that determine the path of their respective revolutions. Some information in this post comes from a conversation I had with Professor Sam Liebhaber, who chairs the Arabic program at Middlebury College, and has been conducting research in Yemen since the late 1990s.
The obvious comparison to start with is between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Saleh has been President of Yemen for 32 years (1978-1990 of the Yemen Arab Republic) and Mubarak had been President for nearly 30 years prior to his departure. Both come from a military background and established a questionable form of democracy within their countries. In recent years, they have both been important allies of the United States, in its attempts to fight terrorism and spread “democracy” in the region. However, the main difference between these two men, and thus the distinguishing factor between their respective revolutionary paths, is quite simple; Mubarak was the autocrat that Saleh has long aspired to be. The factionalized nature of Yemen has kept Saleh from ruling with the same combination of an iron fist, fear, and patriotism that Mubarak nearly perfected. This leads to the logical follow up question of why Saleh has not been able to consolidate his power. The answer has a lot to do with internal politics.
Yemen, unlike most of Egypt, is still very tribal. Alliances are largely based on tribal bonds that go back centuries, and can often be hard to predict. This, along with the northern defeat of the south in the 1994 civil war, has led to many of the splits and factions within the country. One important result is that the government is not the only armed group operating inside Yemen. The four major actors are the Saleh government, the southern secessionist movement the Houthis in the north, and to a lesser extent, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Although the government has been able to keep the country somewhat together, it is a stretch to say that it satisfies Weber’s definition of sovereignty: Saleh is far from having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. This makes it much harder for Yemen to follow the revolutionary path of Tunisia or Egypt.
In Egypt the protesters were able to unify to fight against one, clear, sovereign power: the Mubarak regime. This common enemy made it relatively easier for the people to unite. The fact that Mubarak was a sovereign ruler also reduced the possibility that the country would fall into civil war or chaos in his absence. There was at least a system of order to fall back on. This meant that Mubarak’s attempts to instill fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and “foreign forces”, which were vague and not necessarily imminent, merely served to highlight his disconnection from reality. However, Saleh’s claim that protests “will lead to chaos,” is relatively more credible and are at least based on kernels of reality. The very real prospect of chaos is has been a deterrent for many would be protesters. Another major faction that differentiates the revolutions is the psychological state of the citizens.
Saleh’s inability to consolidate power has created a different psyche within Yemen compared to Mubarak-dominated Egypt. Life under the two regimes may seem similar, but Yemenis are actually much less fearful of their government. It is not uncommon to find groups of men openly discussing politics, especially when Qat– a wildly popular mild narcotic– is involved. In my experience, Yemenis are even willing to criticize their government. Furthermore, state censorship, although existent, is less systematic and pervasive in Yemen. One of the English daily newspapers (Yemen Times) even won the 2006 International Press Institute’s “Free Media Pioneer” award.
As one young Egyptian woman put it, ‘since the age of five we were told that Hosni Mubarak was second to God.’ She went on to talk about how they were told never to question the regime, and not to express their personal opinions. She said that all her political science classes were videotapes in college, and that one professor gave her a zero on an exam when she expressed her own views. It was also not uncommon for police to threaten not only the politically minded youth, but their families as well. When this woman was in high school, a group of students tried to raise money to send food to Palestine. In response, the Egyptian police came in (armed) and told them that if they did not stop the “activist” project that neither them nor there families would ever be able to work again–that their lives would be ruined.
The psychological grip that Mubarak had over his country was tangible; something Saleh, was never able to create because of the aforementioned political reasons. Ironically however, the extreme oppression in Egypt helped to create the necessary level of outrage for a successful revolution. The outrage enabled people to bridge their differences in the pursuit of a common goal. In Yemen, the freedom to express political opinions (at least privately) may have created just enough of an outlet for anti-government rage that it will have a hard for citizens to bridge their differences.
There are two distinct sides starting to form in Yemen: the pro and anti government forces. Many tribes are putting aside their more extreme demands for now, and coming together against the government The Houthis and the Southern movement have officially come out in favor of the protests, and AQAP is likely to do the same. On the other side, those who do not like any of those three factions are joining the supporters of the Saleh regime. This is creating a bipolar dynamic that makes the opposition to Saleh more divided and weaker than the one that went up against Mubarak.
Another important split is between the opposition parties and the youth. Although the two main opposition groups, al-Islah (the Reform Party) and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) have united in support of protests, some youth consider them just as corrupt as Saleh’s officials. Many of them have become wealthy through Saleh’s relatively democratic and pluralist system, and it is possible that Saleh will just continue to pay them in order to stay in power until 2013 or beyond. Ultimately, as long as the various factions stay even partially divided, Saleh will be able to stay in power. The two things that could possibly galvanize enough supporters to depose Saleh is the use of violence against protesters or massive demonstrations outside of Sana’a move to the capital.
Overall, despite corruption, low wages, unemployment and a poor education system being common complaints of both the Yemenis and the Egyptians, it will be the differences highlighted in this post that will shape the outcome of these two unique revolutions. Given the internal divisions that Yemen faces, I am less optimistic about their chances of overthrowing President Saleh, but the last few weeks have proved that anything can happen. I am also torn about how much better the life of an average Yemeni would be if Saleh were to leave. The power vacuum that will be created in his absence is unlikely to be smoothly filled, like in Egypt. All I can do is hope that the Yemenis know what is best for their country, and encourage them in their fight against autocracy.
Written by Tik Root a student at Middlebury College who was studying at the C.V. Starr Middlebury School Abroad in Alexandria from September until the revolution broke out.