Ali Abdullah Salih, from 1978 to 2011

From the latest news reports in the region it appears that President Ali Abdullah Salih has agreed to step down within a month in an agreement brokered by the GCC. The plan calls for Salih to hand over power to his Vice President one month after the opposition signs on to the agreement, which they have reportedly done. Although, as I write this Salih’s decision to step down has not been broadcast in the state-run Yemeni newspaper al-Thawra or on his personal website. Two months later a national election is to be held. A possible sticking point is the immunity that this agreement provides President Salih and his family. The U.S. administration has already blessed the plan and it seems likely that it will be finally resolve Salih’s departure.

The protests against Salih have left the country divided and the economy, weak as it was to begin with, has basically ground to a halt. The poorest country in the Middle East is even poorer after three months of protests across the country. So what happens now?

The removal of President Salih will not solve the range of economic, ecological and social problems facing Yemen. Unemployment will continue, as the oil production nears an end; water tables will draw down even more drastically; imported Salafi conservatism will divide the population even more. In a sense Salih has been out of power for the past three months, simply hanging on as the protests gained more and more momentum. Unable, and apparently unwilling, to stop the street protests militarily (as Qaddafi is desperately trying), Salih deftly tried to garner his own supporters as a counter to those who wanted him to leave. But the hand writing was on the wall all along, given the wide coalition of groups who had grievances against his regime. The opposition seemingly united in its primary goal of removing Salih, but there is no single leading opposition party or leader waiting in the wings.

The General People’s Conference GPC), the party forged by Salih and propping up his regime, is destined to fall by the wayside, but the so-called Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) are hardly a viable alternative. Brought together in desperation in 2005, this group consists of five separate parties, including Islah, a conservative religious party, and the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) or what remains of this after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen. Salafis and socialists mix together like oil and water, so do not expect the “joint” aspect to carry on much longer. It is clear which is the more dominant party nationwide (don’t bet on the socialists), but there are other important players in the political arena.

Rather than dividing up Yemen according to political party affiliation, which is a weak identification at best, it is important to look at the regional problems that have plagued Salih for the past decade and will continue to make the life of any future leader’s life difficult. In the south there is much unrest, legitimately so, over the way in which their region has been treated after Unification and the brief 1994 civil war that established northern hegemony. While not rich, the former socialist state provided basic services that the northern government has not been willing or able to. I doubt the grievances of the south will be resolved by an incoming president with northern credentials. In the far north there is the Huthi rebellion, which has been festering since 2004. Although this has been characterized as a Zaydi rebellion, supported by Iran, it is more of a battle over the import of Saudi Salafi ideology across the border and excalation of empty rhetoric on all sides. The fact that the Saudis are part of the GCC negotiation plan will probably not set very well with the Huthi supporters. Then there is the catalyst to the protests in the first place: the young Yemenis who currently see little future with large-scale joblessness, inadequate education, rising costs of living, corruption at all levels and scarce supply of basic services. While not quite the twitter revolution seen in Tunisia and Egypt, the fall of Ali Abdullah Salih started at Sanaa University. Alas, it will not end there.

The question many Americans are asking is what kind of government will replace the quasi-democratic presdiential dictatorship of Salih after 32 years at the helm. It will unquestionably be more religious, but do not look for the return of an imamate nor an Iran-style religious oligarchy. First of all, the two main religious sects in Yemen remain the Zaydi and the Shafi‘i, although the Salafi trend financed by Saudi Arabia has made inroads in the past three decades. Although the Zaydi are Shi‘a, in the traditional sense of recognizing the legitimacy of the members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, very few would consider returning to an imamate, which was as corrupt as the recent military dictatorships. There has been remarkably little sectarian violence in Yemen, unlike the recent politicized troubles in Iraq, and the chance of a civil war over religious issues is quite remote. This is the land that produced a reformer like the mujtahid Muhammad al-Shawkani long before the name Bin Laden held any meaning. There are a few radical clerics, like the charismatic ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Zindani, who formed Yemen’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood and started a conservative religious university. But his popular appeal across Yemen is suspect as he is more of a media personality than a serious reformer.

I have left al-Qaeda out of the picture thus far because it is a very small and still insignificant movement in Yemen. President Salih used fear of al-Qaida to increase the military aid from the United States, but it is a ragtag group that has little to offer to Yemen’s pressing problems. While violent rhetoric against the United States gets an audience outside Yemen, most Yemenis are far too concerned about their own internal problems to worry about global politics.

So where will Yemen be in another five years? I have no crystal ball, nor the hubris of a political scientist, but I do have hopes. When I first arrived in North Yemen in 1978 I found a country hard at work inventing itself and moving forward from a very limited development baseline. The massive population growth and lack of progress in most development areas has dimmed the hopes of many, but there is a remarkable resilience among the population that defies cogent outsider analysis. Consider this fact: hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting in a country where there are more guns than there are people and with a strong tribal heritage, yet only about 130 or so individuals have been killed during this time (most it seems from security and hired thugs). Compare this to Libya or Syria, where the toll is mounting daily. I have profound regard for the ability of Yemenis of all persuasions to work out their problems and move forward, even if in tiny steps.

Daniel Martin Varisco