The stalemate cannot hold. As the winds of the Arab Spring have swept away repressive rulers of Arab republics, each in their turn has tried to hold on, to hope that the stalemate that has pervaded the region for so long could continue a bit longer. Each has been proven wrong.
In the last few days, the stalemate in Egypt has been shattered by renewed clashes in Tahrir Square and Syria’s long-running uprising breached the calm of Damascus, when a break-away army faction claimed a missile attack in the capital. Within the Arab world, a philosophical shift has taken place, with Arab leaders now criticising the internal politics of their neighbours: after a strong stand against Libya, the Arab League last week suspended Syria, long a proclaimed bulwark of Arab nationalism.
Only the leadership of Yemen, the longest-running of the Arab uprisings, has so far escaped serious international censure.
That is partly because the international community has been distracted by economic woes and the blood in Syria, and partly because the other Arab countries of the Peninsula fear instability.
The shadow of Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh looms large: his departure from the political scene after three decades worries his neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, and the wider world, particularly the United States. They fear the unknown answer to a question: If Yemen crumbles, who will put it back together again?
That fear is misplaced, though understandable. Yemen shares a long, in places porous border with Saudi Arabia, through which people, goods and ideas can easily pass. The countries of the Gulf have strong ties of family and business to Yemen, as well as sizeable numbers of workers. And the ungoverned spaces in this vast country’s east have offered places for radicals to operate, far from the gaze of governments. If cracks begin to show in the country, the whole Peninsula will feel the repercussions.
And the cracks are beginning to show. The now ten-month old uprising is causing serious instability in Yemen. The protest movement has practically paralysed the capital and the onslaught from Saleh’s forces has made daily life in the southern city of Taiz precarious. Tens of thousands have been displaced internally. The economy is getting worse: prices for staples such as bread and rice have increased 50 percent since January. Petrol stations no longer sell fuel and at least one large oil refinery has stopped production due to a lack of raw materials.
In the south of the country, long uneasy at union with the north, politicians now openly wonder whether to sideline their commitment to the protest movement and push for independence.
But these frictions are not yet fractures. To view the situation in Yemen through the prism of stability is to misunderstand the lessons of the still-nascent Arab Spring.
Firstly, these cracks are not new. The economy has long been fragile and, though exacerbated by the uprising, the root causes of its fragility are deep. The long years of Saleh’s rule have decimated Yemen’s institutions, making them incapable of functioning. It is politics that has driven down the economy, not the uprising.
The same applies to the independence movement in the south. With fewer people and more natural resources, the south has long felt ill-served by the 1990 union of North and South Yemen.
Neither of these problems can be solved by merely continuing with the old way of doing business. The idea of a ‘strongman’ holding a complicated tapestry together is antiquated; the president’s grasp on the country is fraying.
Fearing a fracture is to underestimate the ties that bind Yemen’s citizens together. Armed conflict is possible but not yet inevitable, despite the continued defection of army units away from President Saleh. Yemen’s protest movement has been resolutely peaceful, standing firm in the face of serious, violent provocation. Leaders of the movement, such as the Nobel laureate Tawwakol Karman, have called for international involvement, for Saleh’s assets to be frozen, for a travel ban on his inner circle – but not for foreign military intervention or armed resistance.
Viewing Yemen only through its potential for collapse confuses stability with legitimacy. A situation that merely seems calm is not sustainable. The Arab Spring has shifted the philosophical boundaries of the region, in a way that is only gradually becoming apparent. The old social contracts between rulers and ruled no longer apply. As the revolutions settle, it will become clear the old political contracts that have governed relations between states and outside powers are also outdated.
What, in this new world, should Britain do?
As with all countries, Britain’s foreign policy in the Middle East is a mixed bag, though David Cameron has managed to speak more credibly about Libya, unhindered by the detente offered by previous UK governments. On Syria, too, the right political notes have been sounded: letting the region lead but offering explicit backing.
In Yemen, Britain has a special role, because of long involvement with the country and the tens of thousands of Yemenis who live in Britain. The UK should seek a mixture of quiet diplomacy, in particular with the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, to re-engage with the Yemen file, while at the same time using clear public pronouncements designed to push Yemen’s leadership to recognise that a government without wide legitimacy would find its relationship with Britain compromised.
For now, international institutions are vital to lend broad legitimacy to any political moves against Yemen’s government. The UK took the lead in drafting last month’s United Nations resolution; before next week’s meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss Yemen, Britain’s political leaders should speak clearly about the possibility of sanctions on Yemen’s leadership, including asset freezes.
There is need for such tough talk from the international community, not out of the fear of mere anarchy, but out of conviction, a recognition that no stalemate can hold in Yemen; there are only degrees of instability.
Faisal Al Yafai is chief columnist for the National newspaper in Abu Dhabi. He tweets at @FaisalAlYafai