News / Middle East

Understanding Yemen - Tomorrow’s Youth Challenges Yesterday’s Tribes

Yemen is a recent and tenuous union of tribes in the north and south. Influential tribal leaders and some military officers have joined the call for regime change.

A woman takes part in a march demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a, Monday, September 26, 2011.
A woman takes part in a march demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a, Monday, September 26, 2011.
David Arnold

This young Arab republic has spent eight months trying to replace its president of 33 years. A millennium of traditions maintained by a collection of competing tribes could determine whether students and civil society demonstrators will yield a multi-party democracy or if the nation will witness the death of hundreds of more pro-democracy protesters.

Yemen’s tribalism is playing out in differing ways in the protests in the cities and in the countryside, and some experts are concerned that civil war could break out. Yemen’s south, which joined its northern neighbors to form the Republic of Yemen in 1990, has been poorly served by its leaders before and after unification.

In the fall of this Arab Spring, the future of free elections in a small country on Saudi Arabia’s southern border is still uncertain. Riyadh and Washington are still reluctant to step in and resolve Yemen’s political disarray, yet one thing is sure: the Saleh regime that has operated as a family-run business that bought the loyalty of most of the more than 190 tribes of the country is threatened.

What went wrong?

The president for too long

“It has been for too long,” said Khaled Fattah, who studies state-tribe relations in the Arab world and is a guest lecturer at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Sweden’s Lund University. Yemen’s youth and its tribes are changing.

“As you know there has been a population explosion and there is a new generation which is not influenced by the tribal system,” said Fattah. Three quarters of Yemen was born in the president’s lifetime and 70 percent of Yemenis are under the age of 25. And a new generation emerged more globally oriented than tribally focused.

“So I think that it was a long period of dancing on the heads of snakes, as the president has said,” Fattah recalled.

A grab taken from Yemen's state television station shows Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh addressing the nation from Sana'a September 25, 2011.
A grab taken from Yemen's state television station shows Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh addressing the nation from Sana'a September 25, 2011.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule has depended upon the appointment of his children, nephews, cousins, in-laws and neighbors from the village of his birth to fill major government positions and to run government-controlled businesses.

He has relied on the practice of offering houses, cars, construction, import and export opportunities and the discreet monthly payments by his Ministry of Tribal Affairs of between $100 and $500 to an estimated 6,000 sheikhs among the more than 190 tribes of Yemen. Many of these benefits were directed to the Hashid and Bakil confederations of tribes from the north, where the president is from.

Actually, the amounts of payments were much more, said Charles Schmitz, the president of the Institute of Yemeni Studies and a geographer at Towson University in Maryland who has studied the political economy of development in Yemen for more than 15 years.

Schmitz said Saleh’s patronage system was effective for many years but in addition to the skyrocketing growth of the younger demographic, the attitudes of the tribesmen are changing.

“In fact, we’ve seen quite a lot this summer in the protest movement of tribesmen simply ignoring what their sheikhs, being beholden either to the leaders of the opposition or the leadership of the president, and going off to do whatever they want,” said Schmitz.

Understanding Yemen - Tomorrow’s Youth Challenges Yesterday’s Tribes
Understanding Yemen - Tomorrow’s Youth Challenges Yesterday’s Tribes

In Taiz in the south, tribesmen joined the youth movement to recover the center of town after Saleh’s security forces burned the square students had previously occupied. “They came down not as tribesmen but as individuals.” They left their long jambiya daggers at home. “They abandoned their weapons and came down to the street. This is something new,” said Schmitz.

Some tribes are more political than others

By Schmitz’ definition, a tribe is a geographically defined living unit that focuses on local issues such as resources and security. The tribe’s members articulate a conservative traditional ethic and expect their sheikhs to guarantee a system of justice and to arbitrate differences with their neighbors. Violent aggression is only evident in about 20 percent of the tribes, mostly among the Hashid federation in the north. Schmitz said ideologies are not essential.

Nevertheless, some influential leaders of the large northern confederations have recently joined the movement for regime change and now stand behind the youth movement’s demonstrations. Fattah said these northern supporters, many of them once close to Saleh, see an opportunity in the demonstrations to form a political opposition to his regime.

“The military has been tribalized,” said Fattah. “The security apparatus has been tribalized. What we now have during the revolution is the division with the opposition. And this division is not related to the protection of state institutions. It’s a reflection of a tribal competition.”

“If you look at the elite level and particularly in Sana’a, you’re seeing a competition among traditional rivals playing out,” said Leigh Miles, the Yemen program manager for the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C. Miles has spent six years watching Yemen’s political changes.

The head of the powerful Hashid tribe, Sheikh Sadique al-Ahmar, center, surrounded by guards, attends the funerals of tribesmen, who were killed in clashes with Yemeni security forces, in Sana'a, May 27, 2011.
The head of the powerful Hashid tribe, Sheikh Sadique al-Ahmar, center, surrounded by guards, attends the funerals of tribesmen, who were killed in clashes with Yemeni security forces, in Sana'a, May 27, 2011.

She observes several overlapping movements of opposition to Saleh that have risen in recent months to offer a ruling transition in Sana’a: the Joint Meetings Party, which spawned the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue, and the political interests of the northern tribes in the leadership of Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a relative of the president, and Sheikh Sadique al-Ahmar, the head of the Hashid confederation and Yemen’s sheikh of sheikhs.

“Outside of Sana’a, I think the relationship with the tribes is different,” said Miles. “Tribal leaders are part of the movement. Tribesmen are at the squares. They are protesting. They are supporting the aims of the revolution. I don’t see the tribes attempting to co-opt the aims of the revolution. I’m seeing remarkable unity among the tribes in support of the revolution.”

Keeping the pro-democracy movement young

“There have been a lot of reports about the opposition trying to hijack the revolution and trying to take it over,” said Adel Mozip, a journalist in Michigan, is one of a small group of Yemeni-Americans forming a speaker’s bureau to establish the youth movement’s political agenda for a western audience.

“The opposition declared they are here with the revolution three months after the people were on the streets. The opposition did not really drive the revolution. It’s not like they are in the lead and they can tell the youth what to do,"

“Yemen will never be under a one-man rule again,” Mozip vowed. “It’s time for democracy. Enough is enough.”

But the solution may come from outside of Yemen. Those interviewed raised the possibility of the United States and Saudi Arabia taking a more aggressive step to resolve Yemen’s governance dilemma. Fattah says that, like Saleh, Saudi Arabia is believed to pay substantial sums to Yemen’s sheikhs, and gives the largest amounts to the leaders of the Hashid confederation whose tribes live along the Saudi borders. The Saudis are concerned about a rising revolutionary spirit along their borders.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

As US Strikes Syria, China Sees Parallels at Home

Beijing is debating how much support to give international coalition against IS militants and trying to figure out how many Chinese nationals may have joined group overseas More

CDC: Ebola Could Infect 1.4 M by 2015

US health officials say if efforts to curb the outbreak are not increased, cases will soar dramatically by early next year More

Video USAID Provides $231 Million for Girls Education in 5 Countries

US Agency for International Development partners with celebrities to call attention to importance of education for girls worldwide More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid