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

UN Watchdog Urges Israel to Probe Possible Gaza War Crimes

More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in a 51-day war in Gaza, along with 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel More

New Kenyan 'Thin SIMs' Poised to Transform African Mobile Money

Equity's new technology is approved in African nation for one-year trial, though industry leader Safaricom says thin SIMs could lead to data theft and fraud More

Solar's Future Looks Brighter

New technology and dropping prices are contributing to a surge in solar power 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.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid