At the time of this writing, Yemen’s domestic political situation remains unstable and potentially violent. From the northern city of Sa’dah to the southernmost port of ‘Aden, over 120 civilians have been killed in recent protests. Thousands have been injured by pro-government forces and prevented from reaching hospitals or receiving medical supplies and food. As the public demonstrations and vigils for the fallen increase in number, the future is uncertain. In anticipation of the departure of President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh, fears over an Al-Qaeda takeover and a looming civil war have been splashed across the pages of the New York Times and The New Yorker, blogs and op-eds. As reported on the front page of the Times several weeks ago,
Some experts on Yemen who have observed Mr. Saleh’s long domination through political shrewdness speculated that he might be deliberately withdrawing his forces from pursuing Al Qaeda to worsen the sense of crisis and force the Americans to back him, rather than push him toward the exits. But a senior American military officer with access to classified intelligence reports discounted those doubts on Monday: “This is a reflection of the turmoil in the country, not some political decision to stop.”
This reading of the post-Saleh question reflects a longstanding Western caricature of Yemen as lawless, backwards, the next Somalia or Afghanistan. And while it is true that Yemen suffers from one of the world’s worst crises of capacity, including shortages affecting the supply of food, water, and jobs, the lawless label suggests that Yemen is mostly ungovernable, not because of President Saleh, but because of rampant tribalism, the widely-armed populace, and Al-Qaeda. In other words, Yemen’s instability problem is framed as an encroachment of illegitimate non-governmental factions on the President’s legitimate power.
The implications of post-Saleh chaos are real in their consequences, but understanding and evaluating this possibility requires a different model. In order to determine whether a post-Saleh Yemen would indeed devolve into a failed state, an examination of the contemporary and historical evidence—not the files locked in some secret intelligence official’s cabinets – is vital.