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Le Printemps arabe dans la péninsule Arabique

Resilience in Time of Revolution: Saleh’s instruments of survival in Yemen (2011-2015)

Fernando Carvajal


Dans cet article est abordée la question de la survivance politique d’autocrates dans le Moyen-Orient arabe. Il ne s’agira pas de résilience d’autocrates toujours au pouvoir, mais de celle d’un dictateur déposé qui demeure présent politiquement dans le contexte de l’après-Printemps arabe. En examinant le maintien d’un homme qui a imposé sa force depuis de nombreuses années au Yémen, seront analysées les méthodes utilisées par ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, « autocrate moderne », pour garantir sa continuité politique au-delà de son mandat comme dirigeant. Ce cas est nouveau pour les spécialistes de politique arabe. L’importance politique de Ṣāliḥ, et les 33 ans de règne qu’il a passés à maintenir l’égalité des forces au Yémen ont permis le leg de structures et de principes de gouvernement. Les instruments traditionnels et modernes de la survivance politique, comme l’utilisation des réseaux médiatiques, l’utilisation de la violence par procuration et un retour aux alliances politiques clientélistes assurent à Ṣāliḥ son quasi-monopole sur la mobilisation, constamment renouvelée en sa faveur. Le résumé des événements de la fin de l’année 2014 illustrera comment la résistance de Ṣāliḥ s’est manifestée dans la réponse qu’il a donnée aux défis de la transition politique, et dans sa réaffirmation en tant que force politique centrale.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Perlmutter, 1981, p.7.

1Studies of modern authoritarianism1 have primarily focused on the behavior and structures in place to rule, but not until now did the social sciences have the case of an Arab autocrat surviving deposition. In 2011, Yemen’s fragile regime collapsed as governing partners spearheaded challenges to the legitimacy of ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ’s thirty-three year rule. As a result, the mechanisms for regime survival broke down. Prior to this, unique circumstances had in turn prevented Ṣāliḥ’s rivals from establishing a unified center of authority that could easily depose Yemen’s strongman, these same circumstances would create a space for Ṣāliḥ’s resilience as a center of power during the protest period and the three years after. This case provides an exceptional break with the conventional understanding of authoritarian rulers who are challenged by opposition groups. Ṣāliḥ’s physical and political survival, three years after stepping down, uncovers new opportunities for discussions on the dynamics of political resilience of autocrats in the region of the Middle East.

  • 2 Saif, 1997; Migdal, 1988, p.214-225.

2Instead of furthering studies on how authoritarian rulers remain in power, this brief case study looks at a post-rule case of self-preservation and resilience by an Arab president. After witnessing the fate of Egypt’s Ḥusnī Mubārak (imprisoned), Tunisia’s Zayn al-‘Abidīn Bin ‘Alī (exiled), and Libya’s Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafī (killed), Yemen’s ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ stands as a unique survivor among his counterparts in the region, proving the “ability to withstand the impact of interruption and recuperate”2 after transferring power to his vice-president, ‘Abd Rabūh Manṣūr Hādī. This is not to qualify Ṣāliḥ as a ruler, but merely to recognize his ability to ensure his survival as an “ordinary” citizen and head of the “ruling” party, the General People’s Congress. Events and propositions presented here primarily come from visits to Sana’a and the port city of Aden between January 2011 and December 2013. These observations will come in addition to accounts of Ṣāliḥ’s attempts to remain a center of power in Yemen by presenting his physical and political survival as not simply grounded in personal aptitudes, but rooted in interests shared by elite allies, clients and strategic investments in mobilization instruments.

  • 3 Owen, 2012, p.1, 8; Barnes, 2013, p. 62.
  • 4 Ibid, p. 15.
  • 5 Barnes, 2013, p. 58.
  • 6 Perlmutter, 1981, p. 2.

3The modern autocrat, in this case the Arab ‘president for life’3, is viewed in a post-rule situation. Throughout this article, the deposed autocrat attempts to remain relevant as a center of power out of the seat of authority. The case of post-2011 Yemen aims to illustrate how the characteristics of “second generation republican presidents”4, as Roger Owen identifies post-revolutionary Arab rulers, transcend terms in office. One such characteristic fitting Ṣāliḥ’s case is the representation of the ruler as the sole source of salvation from deepening crises5, the deposed president presenting himself as the only one capable of dealing with widespread instability and the fracturing of the state. Amos Perlmutter states the survival of the modern authoritarian ruler “depends on political elites, on popular support, and political mobilization”6. Such a statement also seems to extend to autocrats surviving an interruption as head of state. The experience transforms tools of control into tools of survival. Thus media outlets serve as primary instruments to increase the monopoly on mobilization and to maintain patronage clients within military institutions or armed tribal elements, thereby retaining a share in the monopoly on violence. Old rivals now serve to prevent the ascent of opposition groups in a post-rupture rebalancing of traditional political alliances. All these means have been employed by Ṣāliḥ and his allies within the General People’s Congress (GPC) since November 2011 and the signature of the GCC agreement that organized his departure from power.

4The events driving the uprising and counter-protest movement of 2011 instantly activated patronage networks on both sides. Clients from across the political spectrum and from all institutions responded, either as media mouthpieces, foot-soldiers, recruiters, even funding daily food and qāt supplies for protesters at Change Square and Maydān al-Taḥrīr (Liberation Square). By looking at such reciprocal relationships, this brief study will describe how networks of clients became the pillars of Ṣāliḥ’s survival strategy, and how these networks survived Ṣāliḥ’s overthrow. While academic and media focus since the 2011 uprising has been on the origins of authoritarian rule and Ṣāliḥ’s cunning personality, there is a need to investigate how resources were mobilized to serve Ṣāliḥ’s resilience.

  • 7 Germani, 1978, p. viii.
  • 8 Haykel, 2013. Official foreign aid or development assistance (ODA) did not feature as a significan (...)
  • 9 Chaise, 2006.

5Gino Germani’s views on the nature and causality of modern authoritarianism also provide a starting point for this study. His early assumption on the cause of authoritarianism in “the third world” being “a result of ‘weakness’ or peculiarities in the first steps taken by some countries on their way towards economic and a modern industrial structure”7 may describe the environment in which ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣālīḥ developed his unique form of rule. Although Yemen is yet to become an industrialized society, some slow economic development, where oil provided (pre-2011) up to 70% of government revenues8, did feature as part of Ṣālīḥ ’s strategy to support clients and gain international recognition at the turn of this century.9

6Germani’s contribution also aids in further understanding political traditions and their effect on the structure of the political order. His views on social mobilization also deliver a unique perspective on the modes of integration of the youth and popular forces in support of or in opposition to the regime. The argument lies between the foundations laid by Germani and Perlmutter, Daniel Brumberg’s work on ‘liberalized autocracy’, and Roger Owen’s work on the fall of Arab strongmen. Yemen’s case will show how having a share in the control of mobilization instruments played a central role in the official opposition successfully removing Ṣāliḥ as president in 2011. The discussion describes the pillars of Ṣāliḥ’s strategy to survive out of the seat of authority between early 2012 and early 2015, especially his grip on mobilization instruments. In particular, Ṣāliḥ’s survival scheme serves to illustrate his ability to embody the persona of the traditional ruler.

The Modern autocrat deposed

7Arab rulers (with the exception of Lebanese presidents who mainly play a symbolic role) are better known for their hold on power than for their capacity to step down and become ordinary citizens. Until the uprisings swept through North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, there was not a single case of an Arab autocrat confronted with a revolutionary movement or coup d’état that did not try to hold on to power or that, when failing to do so, was not either killed, forced into exile or imprisoned. By all standards, political alternance was an anomaly and so was the fate of ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, who formally stepped down after the election in February 2012 of his successor, while benefiting from protection from legal prosecution and remaining head of the General People’s Congress, Yemen’s largest party.

8The only monarch in the region to peacefully step aside in recent times has been Qatar’s Shaykh Ḥamad b. Khalīfa Āl Thānī, who abdicated in June 2013 after eighteen years in power to his thirty-three year old son, Shaykh Tamī10. As for republican regimes, presidents-for-life were presented as pillars of stability, and by nature of their regime with sufficient ability to withstand challenges by opposition groups. Vital to the longevity of each republican regime was a “particular line of development”11 to sustain a unique mode of modern rule that minimized threats to the regime. The management of economic development, in particular through extensive patronage networks, would serve to strengthen that modern mode of rule and the resilience of their leaders. Behind that resilience was a segment of the population transformed into “militant, active participants”12 ready to mobilize and safeguard the ruler’s own physical and political survival, as well as their particular interests.

  • 13 Carvajal, 2010; See also POIRIER, 2008.
  • 14 See Poirier, 2008,, § 6-7 & 24-25; PDF version, p. 4-5 & 13-14.
  • 15 Dresch, p. 89.

9The idea of the modern ruler, in the context of Yemen for example, implies a binary relationship between the traditional and the modern. A strongman like ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ chiefly required legitimacy rooted in traditional perceptions of authority. In republican-era Yemen this most surely meant a military man of tribal origins with an extensive network of alliances that not only created legitimacy, but also served as instruments of authority. This was the message conveyed by Ṣāliḥ’s supporters during the 2006 presidential campaign, adding the role of an internationally-recognized statesman to the equation.13 In addition to his newly developed skills as a modern statesman in the international scene, a new elite class composed of patronage clients, also supporters of Ṣāliḥ’s son succeeding him, might complement traditional allies and serve as instruments to balance power relations. Ṣāliḥ’s mode of rule would evolve every time the forms of opposition did, what Poirier perceived as “new forms of political contestation” following the results of the 2006 presidential election challenging both the authoritarian hold on electoral polls and the durability of the established model of the ‘president for life’14. Departure from traditional forms of rule became a unique aspect of Ṣāliḥ’s era, an innovation that distinguished his era of rule and transformed the nature of autocracy in Yemen. Innovation became a requirement not only to secure legitimacy and extend authority, but also for mere survival in a fragile regime. Without drawing on elements of modern Western models of governance, such as functioning political parties and transparent electoral processes, a modern Arab autocrat like Ṣāliḥ proved capable of transforming existing models, such as Yemen’s Septemberist regime established by the 196215 revolution against the Zaydī Imamate in north Yemen, through innovation. The protest movement led by the official opposition parties in 2011 also came to represent an instance of innovation, and while it remains beyond the scope of this study, it demands particular attention within future studies of the political conflict.

  • 16 Germani, 1978, p. viii.

10With regard to distinctive models, Germani (1978) and Perlmutter (1981) described the unique development and resilience of modern authoritarian rule. However, their approach in such formative studies solely focused on rulers’ tenure as they assume life-long rule. Neither Germani nor Perlmutter necessarily provided insight on how to address the survival of deposed rulers. Physical survival, beyond tribunals, exile, or a role in political life reserved for former rulers, has been as rare as free and competitive elections in the Arab world. Yet, looking to modernity “not as a necessary or universal evolutionary stage in human society, achieved by Western culture before all others [but] as the particular line of development historically taken by [a] culture and peculiar to it”16, as Germani explains, allows an understanding of modern autocrats like ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ. As a point of departure, Germani’s view helps emphasize the uniqueness of so-called Third World authoritarian regimes through their own particular forms of rule. Furthermore, Germani’s views on the origins of modern authoritarianism and its role in social transformation remain primary guidelines for the present study.

  • 17 Ibid, p. 7.
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 See Saif, 2013.
  • 20 Germani, 1978, p. 9.

11For example, loose forms of integration are specific to modern authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. Germani points to the inherent high degree of tension in societies like Yemen, which are constantly struggling to create a central core, a nucleus based on national values, norms or symbols17. In consequence, modern autocrats may be driven simply by the “necessity of maintaining a minimal prescriptive central nucleus sufficient for integration…amidst inherent structural tension.”18 Their project, especially in a preindustrial nation19, may focus merely on integrating a section of the population which keeps out of politics, in order to create “militant, active participants”20; clients or elements mobilized in support of a specific cause summoned by the ruler. Ideology is often a requirement for such social transformation, but in societies like Yemen the idea of secularization or modern political ideologies is naturally absent as a result of deep-rooted traditional tribalism and the role, as partners, played by religious elites.

  • 21 For a comprehensive understanding of politics under a unified Yemen see Dresch, 2000, p. 183‑214.

12While Germani argues that modern authoritarianism prefers citizens over passive subjects, the particular model created in Yemen by ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ 21, between unification in 1990 and his promise to step down after signing an agreement sponsored by the regional powers in November 2011, is a highly unique mixed model. For example, the politicization process in Yemen has not taken the individual toward a particular ideology as Germani would have it, but rather created clients of various centers of power such as military institutions, tribal alliances or pseudo-political parties, often seen as intersecting spheres. A marginal process of politicization under Ṣāliḥ did create active participants as the regime engaged in rituals of democratic development. Yemen held parliamentary elections between 1993 and 2003 and two presidential elections (1999 and 2006), but as it will be further explained, partisan foot-soldiers in Yemeni politics clearly displayed the traits of a patron-client relationship, rather than those of active and empowered citizens basing their choice on an understanding of the political projects presented by the candidates. In turn, the rational choice criteria of clients are seen as founded only in acceptable degrees of stability, and a constant balancing of competing religious identities, for example. After the Yemeni uprising of 2011, the balancing of a new order, potentially led by Sunni Islamists allied to the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Iṣlāḥ), would surface as a driving force of support for Ṣāliḥ in opposition to the transition process supported by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Western powers since November 2011.

  • 22 Germani, 1978, p. 17.
  • 23 See Phillips, 2008, p. 3-5.
  • 24 Phillips, 2010, p. 5-8.

13The necessity of regularly balancing “cycles of mobilization”22 and clients is juxtaposed with Germani’s views on the politicization of social actors. The various centers of power in Yemen have constantly been overwhelmed by shifts in active participation by clients in rival camps. Each center of power, from Ṣāliḥ to al-Iṣlāḥ and its affiliates, have simultaneously struggled to maintain a balance among their own active militants. Keeping them engaged politically yet not allowing them to pose a threat to the established order. And while patron-client groups are often perceived as auxiliary instruments, in Yemen they are used as primary tools23, particularly in the case of mass mobilization. This topic has been well covered by Sarah Phillips, particularly in the context of security issues, and her work provides detailed accounts of the intricacies required to maintain patronage networks in Yemen24, as they are fragile and highly dependent on the economic resources available.

  • 25 Saif, 1997.
  • 26 Germani, 1978, p. 17 and 25.

14Ṣāliḥ’s regime, which included members of rival networks25, skillfully managed the economics of patronage along with cycles of social change. In order to accomplish this, Ṣāliḥ, with over thirty years in power, came close to mastering what Germani calls “objective mobilization”26, that is manifest behavior. In the last decade of his rule, Ṣāliḥ mastered the art of objective, issue-driven mobilization of the masses, not only as an intimidation tactic, but also as an instrument of legitimacy. It became a cornerstone of Ṣāliḥ’s resistance in 2011, and of his political and physical survival afterwards. In 2011, daily demonstrations and organized Friday prayers displayed both the integration of active militants and control over mass mobilization. Gatherings of Ṣāliḥ loyalists aimed at dispelling any images of disintegration: by rallying supporters behind a single cause, Ṣāliḥ effectively used instruments of mobilization to counter any threats from his rivals, most of them former partners in his regime.

  • 27 Irin, 2005.

15Even before 2011 Ṣāliḥ’s clients, an informal network far removed from the president, proved they could rally the masses under a particular slogan, namely in support for fuel subsidies27, without identifying the primary interest or specific rivals being targeted. This tactic, adhering to Germani’s “objective mobilization” approach, was used in the same way by the official opposition, Ṣāliḥ’s partners in government, who used degrees of friction to extract benefits from Ṣāliḥ. While Germani points to a high degree of tension forming primary threats to national integration and stability, one can assert that tension between Ṣāliḥ and his regime partners had not previously represented an existential threat. Popular mobilization by rival groups, prior to 2011, was never perceived by the regime as a risk, but rather as attempts to alter the balance of power in order to extract concessions. Tension would then be eased by the inherent interdependence between Ṣāliḥ and his regime partners, until 2011/ at least.

  • 28 Perlmutter, 1981, p. 5.
  • 29 Ibid, p. 2.
  • 30 Ibid, p. 2.
  • 31 Saif, 1997; Dresch, 2000. The Yemen Arab Republic, north Yemen, unified with the People’s Democrat (...)
  • 32 Ibid, p. 5.

16Perlmutter, who admits ruling systems can be both unique and yet contain similar particularities, identified a model of modern authoritarianism28 closely resembling political behavior in Yemen. His approach went beyond the ‘strongman’ model, describing a method of “rule by the few in the name of the many”29, which draws clear similarities with the republican model in Arab world. In Perlmutter’s model, the elite sustaining the relationship “between political and social sources of power”30 is capable of delivering a sustainable balance and of serving as instruments of mobilization commanded by the autocrat. Clients have always played a role in the balance sustained by Ṣāliḥ in the years between unification in 199031 and his overthrow in 2011. The balance of power minimized -without eliminating them- tensions within the regime which used mobilization as a necessary tool to prevent disintegration. In fact, Ṣāliḥ did aim to establish an “exclusive command over the means of mobilizing the majority”32, what Germani would see as an effort to contain tension and conflict. However, the political reality he faced prevented him from gaining a complete monopoly over his regime partners, who in turn represented the organized opposition.

  • 33 Perlmutter, 1981, p. 5.
  • 34 Carvajal, 2014, p. 93-125.

17Command over a larger portion of the means of mobilization indeed granted the ruler in Yemen the tools “necessary for sustenance and survival”33 as the head of state. But a unique test to the ruler’s command appeared when a challenge to his rule went beyond the mere attempt to extract concessions or create a new balance within the elite. This balance was disrupted in late 2010 when Ṣāliḥ faced a highly coordinated and well-funded challenge to his rule. Ṣāliḥ’s rivals spared no expense mobilizing clients in Change Square, as well as tribal elements to confront both the Republican Guard and Army units in northern Yemen, while the situation also provided enticing opportunities in the black market. The strength of the opposition movement led by Ṣāliḥ’s former coalition partner, al-Iṣlāḥ, escalated in February 2011, partly as consequence of televised images of the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia sweeping the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)34.

  • 35 Initially the brainchild of YSP leader ‘Umar Jār Allāh (d. 2002), the JMP was officially created i (...)
  • 36 Finn & ḥarazi, 2011.

18As Ṣāliḥ’s rivals, al-Iṣlāḥ and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP)35, called for a Day of Rage on 3 February, Ṣāliḥ pre-empted protests by mobilizing his supporters to occupy Taḥrīr (Liberation) Square in downtown Sana’a on 2 February. The occupation of Taḥrīr Square occurred as he addressed Parliament to recall proposed amendments introduced by the GPC in mid-December 201036. Such a move proved that his years of experience dealing with rivals had taught Ṣāliḥ to predict their behavior and rally popular support to his own cause.

  • 37 Ghālib is the son of the former head of the Tax Authority and al-‘Abbāsī is a GPC-affiliated journ (...)
  • 38 Harb, 2014.

19As in the case of Bin ‘Alī in Tunisia and Mubārak in Egypt, domination of instruments of mobilization was not completely in Ṣāliḥ’s hands. His command of political mobilization could not completely prevent his removal from power, but it did prevent him from suffering a fate similar to that of his counterparts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. In fact, this command was primarily responsible for securing his physical and political survival as an active citizen and center of power throughout the transition period after signing the GCC initiative in November 2011. GPC affiliates, like Ḥamad Ghālib and Muḥammad al-‘Abbāsi37, said Ṣāliḥ’s survival strengthened his relationship with supporters, improved his tactics and even potentially paved the way for his return as behind-the-scenes kingmaker. Evidence of such a role surfaced days after Sana’a’s takeover by Ḥūthī rebels in September 2014, when Ṣāliḥ was accused of conspiring with ‘Abd al-Malik Badr al-Dīn al-Ḥūthī and of facilitating the military defeat of his sworn enemies, General ‘Alī Muḥsin al-Aḥmar and al-Iṣlāḥ party within Sana’a’s borders.38 In the meantime, what is clear is the manner in which Ṣāliḥ managed to activate instruments developed to guarantee his survival after agreeing to step down as president.

A Model of resilience

  • 39 Saif, 1997. See also, Phillips, 2011.
  • 40 Saif, 1997.

20Yemeni politics have long been characterized by a permanent state of tension, testing individual and group abilities to withstand interruptions and recover from misfortunes39. Ahmed Saif simply described it as politics of survival40, a reality well dealt with by ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ during his years in power, experience that forged his determination and skills in resilience. Amidst the euphoria of the Arab Spring uprisings, few if any analysts and actors would have thought Ṣāliḥ could survive the youth-led uprising of 2011 any better than his counterparts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. But his cunning wits secured a dignified exit and a persistent role as a center of power.

  • 41 The term is used in reference to the governments involved in drafting the Gulf Cooperation Council (...)
  • 42 Discussions held by author in Sana’a during his residence there in 2012 and 2013 with various GPC (...)

21Without delving deeper into the cause(s) of Ṣāliḥ’s downfall, the matter of his resilience remains a unique occurrence for social sciences and studies of the Arab Middle East. Having been assured of immunity by the international community41, and his physical security protected by interim president ‘Abd Rabūh Manṣūr Hādī, former vice-president under Ṣāliḥ (1994-2012), the deposed president could have simply disappeared from politics and taken up retirement anywhere in the world. Speculation spread in late January 2012 when Ṣāliḥ landed in the US to undergo medical treatment, leading observers to think the US could possibly grant him refuge, but he ended up returning to Sana’a just before the one-man, UN-sponsored presidential election of 21 February 2012. This is when people close to Ṣāliḥ commented that he simply viewed events of 2011 as a conspiracy against him led by overly ambitious rivals, mainly the shaykhs of the al-Aḥmar family, and other misguided allies that had betrayed him42. For Ṣāliḥ, stepping down was merely an interruption in his long-term project to have his eldest son Brig. Gen. Aḥmad ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, commander of the Republican Guard, succeed him as president. To reveal his true drive for survival would be a monumental task, but examining how Ṣāliḥ remained relevant during the transition period provides a unique opportunity for a model of survival by a modern autocrat.

Mobilizing to preempt

  • 43 Carvajal, 2014, p. 119-122.

22The events of 2011 were perceived by some as the first concerted effort to oust Ṣāliḥ by any group of rivals since he took office in 1978. Challenges to his legitimacy as elected president of a unified Republic of Yemen were numerous, and brought together a most eclectic group of rivals, from urban centers to the most remote rural areas. Protests across Yemen further illustrated the unique structure of the state-society relationship as cleavages emerged within patronage networks maintained by regime partners. Both opponents and supporters of Ṣāliḥ were able to mobilize near equal numbers to the streets, as well as to achieve parity in troops mobilized to battlefields throughout north Yemen43. These protests and violent clashes illustrated how state institutions had never been in the hands of one man, or one single identifiable group, and for that reason, there never was a complete monopoly on the tools of mobilization and of repression.

  • 44 Finn & ḥarazi, 2011.
  • 45 Eyewitness account by author who visited Taḥrīr Square the morning of 2 February and both protest (...)
  • 46 Among the amendments introduced were legislation to reform local administration, new quotas for wo (...)

23‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ recognized this unique fault regarding the mobilization tools in Yemen’s political system. Acknowledging this weakness is what led him initially to appear before Parliament in an effort to preempt calls for a ‘Day of Rage’ in the capital Sana’a by the JMP. His speech at the legislature was accompanied by efforts to set up a tent camp two blocks away44. That Wednesday morning, 2 February 2011, a number of large tents and portable toilets were set up near Parliament at Taḥrīr Square by GPC militants, after authorities had denied the JMP permits to hold Day of Rage protests in the same location45. By the time Ṣāliḥ addressed Parliament, Tunisia’s Bin ‘Alī had already stepped down and taken up residence in Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s Mubārak was a week away from leaving power. By this point, Ṣāliḥ was bent on depriving the opposition an opportunity to emulate protestors in Cairo. His speech before Parliament was a bit of a mea culpa, as he announced the withdrawal of a number of constitutional amendments introduced by the GPC block in December 201046 and promised not to run in the 2013 scheduled elections. Yemen’s president was skillfully moving to preempt scenarios befalling his counterparts in North Africa.

  • 47 The GPC controlled 214 seats out of 301 since the last parliamentary election in 2003. See Carapic (...)

24The ruling GPC party47 quickly mobilized its own clients and pillars of grassroots support: worker syndicates, tribal leaders and student groups. Supporters quickly filled the streets in downtown Sana’a, a day ahead of the planned protests by the JMP. Ṣāliḥ could not have weathered the impending storm without mobilizing his patronage network in the capital Sana’a and elsewhere. His clients, within government institutions and among tribal groups in northern Yemen, mobilized supporters to counter the numbers gathered by the National Solidarity Council (NSC), led by Ḥusayn ‘Abd Allāh al-Aḥmar, and the JMP. The confrontation then gained momentum on Friday February 11, as soon-to-be Nobel Peace Prize (2012) winner Tawakkul Karman rallied the opposition in Ta’izz, just before Ḥusnī Mubārak stepped down in Cairo. However, Ṣāliḥ’s clients were already on the move, and through various mobilization instruments rallied thousands to the streets in support of the president.

  • 48 Alley, 2010, p.390.

25These were the unique characteristics of Ṣāliḥ’s regime, as opposed to his counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia who reacted only once demonstrators had occupied physical spaces. Thus, events in Yemen during the popular uprisings of 2011 serve to illustrate the limits of existing literature on mobilization. Often simply focused on the behavior of autocrats, where studies simply mention regime clients as instruments, neglecting to examine how their own behavior influences the autocrat himself. April Alley’s work on “The rules of the game” describes the dynamics of informal patronage networks that produced power and wealth in Yemen under Ṣāliḥ. Her study, for example, examined the preservation of authority through patronage and mechanisms of enforcement, but most important was a discussion on the degree of competition between elite actors shaping and sustaining the benefits of patronage relations48. Alley’s work still did not address the role of clients during conflict, only in terms of economic competition, but raises awareness on how clients protected their interests.

  • 49 Phillips, 2010.

26Events of 2011 in Sana’a and areas like ‘Amrān, al-Bayḍa, al-Jawf, Ma’rib and Ta’izz, provide a clear opportunity to further examine patron-client relationships in action beyond existing studies. Actions undertaken by regime clients can be described as not only safeguarding Ṣāliḥ himself, but also as an unprecedented move to ensure their own survival and economic interests. Alley and Sarah Phillips49 contribute to literature on Yemen’s patronage relations from the perspective of their role as regime agents, as well as the obstacles created by patronage networks on the road to reform. Yet, literature still falls short in addressing how client agency also contributes to regime resilience when confronting true existential threats. Ṣāliḥ’s clients responded to orders to establish a camp in Sana’a’s Maydān al-Taḥrīr, and were provided basic necessities such as food and qāt to maintain a physical presence for nine months. These Supporters also directly contributed to escalation as protests intensified.

  • 50 Alley, 2010, p. 399-400.

27The manner in which Ṣāliḥ’s clients responded in 2011 clearly manifested the competitive nature of patronage relations. Alley’s work mentions reciprocity within the patronage network, as in repaying for benefits gained50 in a bilateral relationship. However, Ṣāliḥ’s clients were not only pushing the boundaries of the rules when conflict ignited in Sana’a, they were also tactically aiming to carve out positions for themselves within the network as it ruptured and revealed potential new opportunities, as expectations of a clear victory developed. Some of those gaining leverage were people like Ḥāfiẓ al-Mu’ayyad, former chairman of CAC Bank, and Julaydān Maḥmūd Julaydān, from ‘Amrān who was considered a contender to replace Shaykh ‘Abd Allāh al-Aḥmar as paramount shaykh of the Ḥāshid tribal confederation.

28Patronage crossed partisan lines under Ṣāliḥ. His clients were to be found within the GPC, Iṣlāḥ and various other junior parties. Yet primary loyalists within the GPC saw the regime rupture early on, and witnessed how clients within al-Iṣlāḥ came to side exclusively with their party leadership. This created a new, unprecedented opportunity for positioning and expanding benefits as shares of the ‘pie’ -previously held by those now in the opposition- were now available. Opportunities within government institutions, whose financial resources could allow for sub-patronage networks to reinforce the positions of particular actors within Ṣāliḥ’s own network, as well as the economic sector where energy, fisheries, ground transport, construction or imports industries, would presumably be up for grabs after Ṣāliḥ had sacked all the supporters of the rebels Ḥamīd al-Aḥmar, ‘Alī Muḥsin and al-Iṣlāḥ party. Indeed, some major personalities were removed including Nāṣir Ṭaḥa Muṣṭafā, then chairman of Saba News Agency who would become President Hādī’s Secretary in 2012 and Minister of Information in 2014. Muṣṭafā was replaced by Ṭāriq al-Shāmī, the GPC’s media director. Likewise, ‘Abd al-Walī al-Shamīrī, a close ally of ‘Alī Muḥsin, was removed as ambassador in Cairo, while ‘Abd al-Malik Manṣūr was removed as Yemen’s Arab League envoy.

29An in-depth examination of the evolution of client behavior during the political crisis of 2011 lies beyond our scope, but the impact of client behavior on Ṣāliḥ’s survival remains crucial. Their contribution to regime survival was unique from the start as far as mobilizing popular support for Ṣāliḥ goes. Between February 11 and mid-March 2011, when mobilizing the masses was not sufficient to deter protesters, clients escalated the conflict through the use of violence. Clashes near protest areas erupted, these were primarily intended to contain the growth of areas like Change Square in Sana’a, as well as to prevent the demonstrations from reaching vital government facilities, potentially obstructing the operations of government under Ṣāliḥ and granting protesters a highly symbolic victory.

  • 51 “Sana‘a Bulletin #3”.

30The use of force as a tool of survival during the uprising was not limited to clashes between protest camps or the deployment of military forces. Tribal irregulars and privately recruited balātiga (hooligans, sing. baltagī)51 were often at the front lines in Sana’a and Ta’izz, while the former even joined the armed forces fighting government troops loyal to Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin or al-Iṣlāḥ party in areas like Banī Maṭar and Arḥab in the outskirts of the capital. The degree of violence perpetrated by opposing sides during the nine months of protests tested much of contemporary understandings of regime survival in the Middle East.

Violence by proxy

31By most media accounts, the events of 2011 embodied a ‘Peaceful Revolution’, yet on the ground the use of violence was an integral component of tactics employed by both sides. Violent clashes were widespread, from inside the capital Sana’a, and governorates of Sana’a, al-Jawf and ‘Amrān, to the streets and mountains of the city of Ta’izz. In the latter and in Sana’a, it was clear clients on both sides of the conflict were bent on escalating events to influence the outcome. Also, the regime rupture exacerbated divisions within the armed forces, leading to clashes between the Republican Guard units under Aḥmad ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ and the First Armored Division (al-Firqa) under ‘Alī Muḥsin al-Aḥmar. Fears of civil war engulfing southwest Arabia spread in the region and among international observers as Yemen’s autocrat, and his rivals, treaded a fine line to ensure their survival.

  • 52 See Dresch, 1989.
  • 53 Dresch, 2000. p. 87.

32The monopoly on mobilization that characterizes autocratic regimes runs parallel to the monopoly on violence by formal state institutions. Yet, this conventional understanding of state power in the Arab world, with the exception of Lebanon’s fractured political structure, ignores Yemen’s unique socio-politico structure. The foundations of Yemeni society are the family and tribe52, granting an autocrat like Ṣāliḥ opportunities to increase available resources beyond formal institutions. Consequently, in Yemen’s case the state cannot be said to have had a total monopoly on the use of violence in presence of tribal irregular clients, even though the republican regime was created and has been sustained by a military elite since September 196253. Influential tribal elements from Sanḥān (the birthplace of Ṣāliḥ and ‘Alī Muḥsin) and elements from Ḥāshid under Shaykh ‘Abd ‘Allāh al-Aḥmar (who died in 2007) were pillars of the regime in Sana’a, especially those within the military. Such positions granted them a major role in the patronage network, and therefore forced them to respond and help their patron, either Ṣāliḥ or another head of the regime (‘Alī Muḥsin or the al-Aḥmar family).

  • 54 Author was present near Change Square during residence in Sana’a between early February and early (...)

33Among Ṣāliḥ’s clients were tribal elements, military officers and their subordinates, members of syndicates, civilian government officials and GPC militants. These clients identified various opportunities to position themselves and expand benefits throughout the nine-month long political conflict. Between late February and November 2011 a number of Ṣāliḥ’s loyalists in Sana’a, Ta’izz and other cities organized groups of balātiga who directly incited and engaged protesters in Change Square (Sana’a) and Freedom Square (Ta’izz) by throwing rocks and shooting live rounds54. Young protesters reciprocated with rocks and Molotov cocktails, repelling numerous attempts to dismantle the protest squares as the balātiga aimed to ignite a final confrontation and defeat Ṣāliḥ’s rivals for good. Clashes outside urban spaces, such as Arḥab and Ḥayma districts in Sana’a and areas outside the city of Ta’izz, were deadlier as military troops and tribal elements engaged with heavy weapons.

  • 55 Dresch, 2000.

34As violent clashes raged through 2011, president Ṣāliḥ was pinned between survival mode and international scrutiny. By the end of March the regime was dealt the worst blow since the summer of 1994, when southern military officers and members of the Yemeni Social Party (YSP) attempted to void unification55. ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ’s right-hand man, Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin al-Aḥmar, declared himself ‘protector of the youth revolution’ following the Friday of Dignity massacre of March 18. ‘Alī Muḥsin was not only Ṣāliḥ’s long-time confidant, he was a pillar of the regime as part of the triumvirate that took power in 1978 along with the Ḥāshid confederation’s paramount shaykh, ‘Abd Allāh b. Ḥusayn al-Aḥmar (unrelated to ‘Alī Muḥsin). Al-Aḥmar family members had already broken away from Ṣāliḥ under Ḥamīd b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Ḥusayn al-Aḥmar, thus dividing the patronage network, which now ruptured again with ‘Alī Muḥsin’s defection. The general’s departure also presented new challenges as government armed forces now faced each other, rather than simply confronting irregular tribal elements around Sana’a and the countryside.

  • 56 This narrative became part of Ṣāliḥ’s speeches during Friday protests held at Sab‘īn Road from Mar (...)

35The degree of violence raging on gained the attention of regional neighbors and Western governments. By late March, diplomats in Sana’a urged all sides to de-escalate the conflict and reach an acceptable outcome through dialogue. By this point, the violence around protest areas and full-blown armed conflicts in the periphery had reached a point where patrons could no longer restrain actors on the field, either in Sana’a or in areas like al-Jawf, Ma’rib or Ta’izz. While diplomats stressed the importance of de-escalation to Ṣāliḥ and ‘Alī Muḥsin, both would often claim field leaders of balātiga or tribal elements were beyond their direct control. The fact that diplomats could not provide clear evidence on the chain of command overseeing these elements around the country plainly illustrated how informal structures of patronage outlined by April Alley, for example, allowed patrons to greatly distance themselves from the perpetrators of violence. Attacks by balātiga on protest squares in Sana’a and Ta’izz were dismissed by Ṣāliḥ’s side as reactions on the part of ordinary citizens provoked by rogue elements or even terrorists, often linked to al-Qaida, themselves bent on creating chaos56. Ṣāliḥ argued the state was under attack and that these rogue elements had to be defeated. On the other side, the opposition held on to its narrative of a peaceful revolution anchored in Change Square and Freedom Square while at the same time armed elements, such as those under Shaykh Ḥammūd al-Mikhlāfī in Ta’izz for example, challenged Ṣāliḥ’s state institutions around the country.

  • 57 Craig, 2011.

36The use of violence eventually escalated to direct clashes between feuding parties. In May 2011, following a series of confrontations, the home of Shaykh Ṣādiq b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Ḥusayn al-Aḥmar in the Ḥasaba area of Sana’a was bombed by government forces during a tribal meeting, killing a number of personalities. In what some viewed as a direct response to this attack, ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ was then targeted on Friday June 3rd as he was praying with a number of his closest allies at al-Naḥdayn mosque inside the Presidential Palace in Sana’a57. Ṣāliḥ suffered major burn injuries and was quickly transferred to a hospital in Saudi Arabia until his return to Sana’a in September. This four-month long absence heightened concerns over escalating violence, especially as clients of Ṣāliḥ urged for retaliation. His sons and nephews, all commanders of various military units, were simultaneously restrained and urging restraint on the part of anxious clients willing to demonstrate their loyalty, as well as to protect their own interests.

Media as a tool of survival

37Just as Ṣāliḥ recuperated from his injuries and concluded negotiations on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative signed in November 2011, the political conflict escalated in a different way. Although intense armed clashes continued after he stepped down as president, priority was given to the construction of a narrative that not only secured Ṣāliḥ’s physical and political survival, but also attempted to monopolize the interpretation of events. Although the use of violence was aimed primarily at regaining a monopoly on mobilization interrupted by the 2011 protest movement, the use of media outlets shifted the theatre of war and its narrative. Complementing Ṣāliḥ’s continued control over the GPC, a media network under his clients turned out to be a highly valuable tool for shaping the public narrative after his downfall.

38Similar to the strategy of violence by proxy, this far-reaching media network operated by Ṣāliḥ’s associates allowed the former president to secure his survival from a distance, avoiding direct accusations of obstruction during the transition period. Since the use of media had failed to accomplish its primary goal during the political conflict of 2011, it appeared a huge gamble for Ṣāliḥ to further rely on television and print media to achieve various objectives after he had stepped down. Without personally owning any media outlets, beyond those held by the GPC, political alliances built with new and existing media outlets allowed Ṣāliḥ to retain control over his client network and strengthen his ability to shape the political narrative.

  • 58 See ICG, 2013.
  • 59 See UNSC Resolution 2140 (2014).

39The fight for control of the GPC started early in 2012, following the swearing in of president Hādī. As the process to restructure the military and security forces began, Ṣāliḥ was perceived to be at his weakest point yet. Hādī’s decision to focus on the Air Force from the start was a highly strategic move, and dealt Ṣāliḥ a major blow. Hādī moved to secure a monopoly over Yemen’s airspace, and simultaneously targeted Ṣāliḥ’s half-brother, Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ58. At this point Hādī, Secretary General of the GPC, believed he could marginalize Ṣāliḥ within the party, starting by securing the support of Vice-President Dr. ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Iryāni. Yet again, GPC ranks rallied behind Ṣāliḥ and rejected Hādī’s overtures. The conflict escalated once the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) began, as GPC media attacked Hādī and Bin ‘Umar for their handling of the NDC. Both were accused of selling out Yemen’s sovereignty to the UN. The demonizing of both individuals led the UN Security Council to warn the media against inciting violence and becoming instruments of obstruction59. Hādī’s efforts to draw a wedge between Ṣāliḥ and the party merely served to galvanize support for the deposed president.

  • 60 Journalists interviewed in Sana’a claim al-Ulā paper (with Muḥammad ‘Aysh as its Editor in Chief) (...)
  • 61 Information provided to author by Yemeni journalist during interview in December 2013.

40The media network employed to secure Ṣāliḥ’s survival practically crossed the political spectrum. Those who operated and funded media outlets also represented a diverse group among regime elements and clients. For example, al-Yaman al-Yawm (Yemen Today) media network which includes a television channel, radio station (99.9fm) and daily newspaper with their web-based outlets is said to be funded by Aḥmad ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ and Yaḥyā Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ. In addition to this network, there are a number of newspapers published by Nāyif Ḥasan, such as al-Ulā and al-Shāri‘, which in turn have links to Shaykh Yāsir Aḥmad al-‘Awāḍī (Minister of Parliament and newly elected Assistant Secretary General of the GPC)60. The papers have been in tow with Ṣāliḥ since March 2012, while radio and television programs aimed to recapture popular support through a reconstructed narrative, secular in character and primarily targeting the Sunni Islamist party al-Iṣlāḥ. Media outlets served to counter opposition papers like Akhbār al-Yawm (edited by Ṣāliḥ al-Ḥaḍarī), Ma’rib Press (edited by Muḥammed al-Ṣalāḥī), as well as Sa‘ida TV (owned by Ḥamīd al-Shamīrī) and Suḥayl TV (operated on behalf of al-Iṣlāḥ Party)61.

  • 62 Conversations during author’s visit to Sana’a in 2013 with journalists working at various newspape (...)

41Just as al-Yaman al-Yawm operates under Ṣāliḥ’s son and nephew, so do opposition media operate with funds or under the direction of major personalities within al-Iṣlāḥ Party or its allies. Al-Sa‘ida TV is reportedly owned by Ḥamīd al-Shamīrī, brother of ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Shamīrī who served as media secretary for Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin. Al-Ṣalāḥī, of Ma’rib Press, has a partner said to be a relative of Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin. In addition, Yemen Fox newspaper and website were funded by Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin62.

42The media strategy implemented by Ṣāliḥ was not intended to monopolize any sector in particular, but mainly to overwhelm the public with sources and attract readers and viewers through high quality products. This strategy relied primarily on alliances with elements in opposition to al-Iṣlāḥ and its political-military allies, ‘Alī Muḥsin and the Bayt al-Aḥmar clan. This alliance of convenience between pro-Ṣāliḥ elements and rivals of the Sunni Islamists flooded the airwaves and print media markets with in-depth reporting on corruption and political backstabbing by Iṣlāḥ politicians and their clients. Prior to 2011, Suhayl TV channel was a top-rated network due to its high quality programming, overtaking government television in all areas. Ṣāliḥ’s clients managed to secure funding in order to compete with Suhayl TV and give less conservative audiences an alternative with similar quality. Radio also presented a golden opportunity since programing at the time was dominated by government radio and stations aligned with Iṣlāḥ, the latter mostly broadcasting religious-oriented programs. 99.9fm radio station managed to increase the number of listeners by presenting traditional and modern music in Arabic and English to a young audience, with male and female Lebanese disc jockeys (DJs) to liven up the broadcasts. The radio station has succeeded in filling a void in a still deeply traditional society as the only station venturing into such genres and, by default, representing the secular-leaning section of society.

  • 63 The General People’s Congress holds 238 out of 301 seats in parliament.

43The radio station provides a connection between Ṣāliḥ and the youth as the television channel and newspapers fully engage in political rivalries, thus helping to secure the survival of the majority party, the GPC63. Al-Yaman al-Yawm is a multi-pronged media network that also utilizes social media to reach beyond domestic audiences. It has created access in Arabic and English to the regime’s agenda under Hādī as well as exposés on JMP activity, such as the growing rifts between Iṣlāḥ and its junior partners like al-Ba‘th party and al-Ḥaqq, showing to the public how the opposition works, as Ṣāliḥ once put it. The media network composed of political alliances emerged as a vital instrument of survival for the elite under Ṣāliḥ as the transition period entered its fourth year. It created a means for sustaining and expressing loyalty to a man perceived far from being removed from power. Interviews and articles by loyalists continuously served to publicly manifest loyalty to Ṣāliḥ, while his own interviews served to establish a permanent presence. Ṣāliḥ makes sure that interviews with al-Yaman al-Yawm take place in a private setting, or that they broadcast summaries of his daily meetings at his residence in Sana’a after any major political announcement where he, as leader (al-za‘īm) of the GPC, presents his views and objections.

  • 64 Events of August 2014, where Ḥūthī leader Sayyid ‘Abd al-Malik b. Badr al-Dīn al-Ḥūthī launched a (...)
  • 65 Salmoni, 2010; Rand, 2010.
  • 66 Author attended a number of qāt chews in Sana’a at the homes of GPC officials where Ḥūthī journali (...)

44The extent of the media alliances is also indicative of the political network Ṣāliḥ managed to resurrect. In the case of al-Ulā newspaper, Muḥammad ‘Aysh, editor-in-chief, is said to be a Ḥūthī sympathizer. These types of links have allowed for indirect contacts between Ṣāliḥ and Ḥūthī rebel leaders since 201164, even after having fought six wars between 2004 and 201065. Common enemies of Ṣāliḥ and Ḥūthīs, such as Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin and al-Iṣlāḥ, created a basis for cooperation during the transition, and the Dialogue in particular. Contacts with Ḥūthīs were also evident during qāt chews in Sana’a between high-ranking GPC members and Ḥūthī junior representatives66, as well as the cordial relations witnessed within the halls of the NDC.

  • 67 Wedeen, 2007, p. 60.
  • 68 Ibid, p. 64.
  • 69 Ibid, p. 65.
  • 70 Ibid, p. 64.

45The importance of qāt chews, “lively public sphere activities” which play a role in producing “important forms of political engagement”, has been highlighted by scholars like Lisa Wedeen67. Chews are eclectic social spheres, however organizing people by chewing circles as well as their seating in the mafraj (the sitting area) can give one clues of the hierarchy governing the various gatherings. Wedeen explains the role of qāt chews in arranging marriages, closing business deals, choosing/electing tribal shaykhs or settling local disputes68, in addition to enabling the “processes of debate and decision making”69 of the political elite. Historically, qāt chews have also served as a “kind of institutionalized grapevine”70, where information is exchanged, as well as an opportunity for poetry recitals in honor of the host or tribal leader, for example.

  • 71 Ibid.

46During the transition period, following the swearing in of President Hādī in February 2012, qāt chews took on their most important role as spheres for political bargaining. As Wedeen points out, chews play a vital role in “bargaining among elites”, either concerning political positions or creating alliances71. The daily chews become a place where political actors often meet to formulate policy or a response to a crisis. This has been the atmosphere of the transition, where homes of senior and junior leaders under Ṣāliḥ, or his informal clients, hosted personalities from various groups, including those close to president Hādī, in an attempt to solidify alliances or agree on approaches to moves made by the opposition. Qāt chews such as those hosted by supporters like Yāsir Aḥmad al-‘Awāḍī constituted a vital instrument for Ṣāliḥ and his clients in their efforts to influence events. Above all, chews provided clients and loyalists with the space in which to operate and secure popular support for policies and secure Ṣāliḥ’s survival. The presence of influential journalists and media editors at qāt chews hosted by Ṣāliḥ, his loyalists and clients, also allowed the group to shape the public narrative in print and television media, and granted them the opportunity to receive or exchange information on the opposition.

47The events of September 2014, when Ḥūthī militias took over the capital Sana‘a, served to confirm rumors of cooperation between Ṣāliḥ and the Ḥūthī rebels. The incursion of 21 September, leading to militia control over vital state institutions like the Central Bank and the Ministry of Defense, was facilitated by Ṣāliḥ’s military and tribal allies, according to a number of statements by Ḥūthī affiliates. The northern Zaydī rebels managed to take control of the Headquarters of the First Armored Division, commanded by Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin al-Aḥmar, and the adjacent campus of al-Imān University, founded by US Specially Designated Global Terrorist Shaykh ‘Abd al-Majīd al-Zindānī, a member of the Shūrā Council of the Sunni Islamist party al-Iṣlāḥ. Ḥūthī militia then moved on to the homes of high-ranking Iṣlāḥ party members, including Nobel laureate Tawakkul Karmān. Having defeated Iṣlāḥ’s tribal and military wings in ‘Amrān province in July 2014, the September incursion dealt a final blow to Iṣlāḥ’s political wing. Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin, then serving as Special Presidential Advisor on Military Affairs, fled to Saudi Arabia while Shaykh Ḥamīd al-Aḥmar had fled Sana‘a following the Ḥūthī takeover of ‘Amrān province, al-Aḥmar’s birth province. ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ has lived to see his rivals from 2011 defeated and vanquished.

Conclusion: Survival, new area studies?

48Three years since agreeing to step down, it would be an understatement to simply refer to Ṣāliḥ’s presence as mere ‘survival’. His resilience in the face of defeat has been the object of admiration from his loyalists and disavowal by his detractors. Many predicted his political demise, and yet his persistence is not only a statement to his determination, but is also due to the unique circumstances of the political environment in Yemen. This has not been achieved by force alone either, nor has popular support been the pillar Ṣāliḥ would have observers believe. Yet, he has become a phenomenon of sorts in the studies of autocrats, and the nature and resilience of their presence. As events leading up to the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen in late March 2015 came to illustrate, the political environment in Yemen continues to be shaped by Ṣāliḥ’s presence.

49Yemen’s strongman has outlived the predictions of the savviest political observers. Ṣāliḥ initially refused to sign an agreement drafted by a group of ten embassies on 30 April 2011, claiming the people wanted him to stay. He survived an attempted assassination in June following the gross violation of tribal custom when the home of Shaykh al-Aḥmar was bombed in late May 2011 as tribal dignitaries met to establish mediation between rival camps, leaving ten dead and many wounded. In the final agreement of November 2011, Ṣāliḥ and his relatives were assured immunity from prosecution, as well as a continued role in political life as president of the General People’s Congress. The year 2012 was marred by constant political maneuvering as priority was given to restructuring the armed forces and security services, aiming to weaken Ṣāliḥ’s access to state institutions and instruments of force as high-ranking loyalists were removed one by one. The appointment of Aḥmad ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, who had served as commander of the Republican guards, as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in April 2013 was meant to remove another potential challenge to interim president ‘Abd Rabūh Manṣūr Hādī as the National Dialogue Conference was launched earlier on March 18. The Ḥūthī - Ṣāliḥ alliance began to surface during Ramadan 2013 as Ḥūthī tribal militias engaged al-Aḥmar loyalists in ‘Uzaymat (‘Amrān province) and then managed to expel Salafists from their stronghold in Dammaj (Sa‘da province) in late 2013. The initial plan against Ṣāliḥ’s rivals quickly unraveled.

50This period of ongoing turmoil in Yemen, and the unexpected turn of events since the popular uprising began, have undoubtedly created new opportunities to expand the study of autocrats. Germani and Perlmutter have, for example, examined authoritarianism from an institutional point of view, and focused on the longevity of a ruling elite. Recent studies such as Owen’s fell short as they neglected to discuss Yemen in equal length as Egypt or Libya. Yemen provides scholars with new areas of study such as the survival of ruling elites outside the seat of power. This should not be restricted to studies of Ṣāliḥ and his clients, but also studies of figures such as Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin, the leadership of the Iṣlāḥ party and the al-Aḥmar family, which has witnessed a profound shift in power relations for the first time in over one hundred years. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was not the only victim in the post-Arab Spring period, al- Iṣlāḥ experienced both victory and defeat within a very short period and with lasting consequences. Shifting political identities have also become areas of interest for studies of mass mobilization in conflict areas. Needless to say, Yemen provides an opportunity to study the role of outside powers during and after the popular uprisings, their successes and shortfalls.

51Most perplexing for ordinary observers of Yemeni affairs has been the political behavior of Ṣāliḥ’s supporters. Failure to understand the historical and cultural context of Yemeni society can get in the way of a proper explanation of why so many people, who habitually complained of Ṣāliḥ’s rule before 2011, gravitated to his side earlier on during the revolt to depose him. More people did so during the transition period which witnessed the rise to power of the Sunni Islamist party al-Iṣlāḥ and its allies as equal partners in government, rather than junior allies. The same sentiments among sectors of the population surfaced during the period of Ḥūthī prominence -even as Ṣāliḥ bears much of the responsibility for facilitating Ḥūthī military power- in response to conservative policies adopted by Ḥūthī leaders in Sana’a. The socio-political structure in Yemen carries more variables and depth, thereby decreasing its predictability. The lack of access by foreign academics today contributes to a stagnant understanding of Yemeni society and political behavior during an unprecedented series of events. Although it is difficult to frame a proper view of such complex issues from abroad, without witnessing events first hand or having access to key players, the largest obstacle is rather not having access to ordinary subjects, best suited to express the causality of their own political behavior, and their relation to the political elite.

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Salmoni B., “Yemen’s Forever War: The Houthi Rebellion”, The Washington Institute, Policy Watch 1681, 20 July 2010,

Wedeen L., “The Politics of Deliberation: Qat chews as Public Spheres in Yemen”, Public Culture, 19:1, 2007, Duke University Press, p 59-84.

International Crisis Group. “Yemen’s Military-Security Reform: Seeds of New Conflict”, Middle East Report No. 139, 4 April 2013,

“San‘a Bulletin #3”, Director’s Blog, Yemen Peace Project, 28 February 2011,

“San‘a Bulletin #6”. Director’s Blog, Yemen Peace Project, 31 March 2011,

Anti-President protests in Yemen, 2 reported dead”, ND TV, 23 February 2011,

Raw Video, Yemen Protests. al-Jazeera English YouTube Channel,

“The April 27, 2003 Parliamentary Elections in The Republic of Yemen”, National Democratic Institute,

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“Ruling Party Announces new Amendments to the Constitution”, The Yemen Post, 30 December 2010,

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1 Perlmutter, 1981, p.7.

2 Saif, 1997; Migdal, 1988, p.214-225.

3 Owen, 2012, p.1, 8; Barnes, 2013, p. 62.

4 Ibid, p. 15.

5 Barnes, 2013, p. 58.

6 Perlmutter, 1981, p. 2.

7 Germani, 1978, p. viii.

8 Haykel, 2013. Official foreign aid or development assistance (ODA) did not feature as a significant source of financial resources before the launching of the Friends of Yemen group in January 2010, receiving under US$6 billion between 1995 and 2009. See Development Initiatives, Yemen aid factsheet 1995–2009.

9 Chaise, 2006.

10 “Qatar’s emir transfers power to son”,, 06-25-2013,

11 Germani, 1978, p. viii.

12 Ibid, p.9.

13 Carvajal, 2010; See also POIRIER, 2008.

14 See Poirier, 2008,, § 6-7 & 24-25; PDF version, p. 4-5 & 13-14.

15 Dresch, p. 89.

16 Germani, 1978, p. viii.

17 Ibid, p. 7.

18 Ibid.

19 See Saif, 2013.

20 Germani, 1978, p. 9.

21 For a comprehensive understanding of politics under a unified Yemen see Dresch, 2000, p. 183‑214.

22 Germani, 1978, p. 17.

23 See Phillips, 2008, p. 3-5.

24 Phillips, 2010, p. 5-8.

25 Saif, 1997.

26 Germani, 1978, p. 17 and 25.

27 Irin, 2005.

28 Perlmutter, 1981, p. 5.

29 Ibid, p. 2.

30 Ibid, p. 2.

31 Saif, 1997; Dresch, 2000. The Yemen Arab Republic, north Yemen, unified with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), south Yemen, in order to create the Republic of Yemen on 22 May 1990.

32 Ibid, p. 5.

33 Perlmutter, 1981, p. 5.

34 Carvajal, 2014, p. 93-125.

35 Initially the brainchild of YSP leader ‘Umar Jār Allāh (d. 2002), the JMP was officially created in 2005 as a coalition of five parties: al-Iṣlāḥ (Sunni), the Yemeni Socialist Party, al-Ḥaqq (Zaydī orientation), the Unionist Party, and Popular Forces Union Party.

36 Finn & ḥarazi, 2011.

37 Ghālib is the son of the former head of the Tax Authority and al-‘Abbāsī is a GPC-affiliated journalist.

38 Harb, 2014.

39 Saif, 1997. See also, Phillips, 2011.

40 Saif, 1997.

41 The term is used in reference to the governments involved in drafting the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative signed 23 November 2011, referred to as the Group of Ten (USA, UK, France, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Qatar, the European Union, the UN, and GCC) and acting as guarantors of the political transition process.

42 Discussions held by author in Sana’a during his residence there in 2012 and 2013 with various GPC officials and a number of individuals who defected from the GPC before and after the Friday of Dignity (Jum‘at al-Karāma) massacre, 18 March 2011.

43 Carvajal, 2014, p. 119-122.

44 Finn & ḥarazi, 2011.

45 Eyewitness account by author who visited Taḥrīr Square the morning of 2 February and both protest camps between 9 am and noon on Thursday 3 February, outside Sana’a University (JMP) and Taḥrīr (GPC).

46 Among the amendments introduced were legislation to reform local administration, new quotas for women in parliament (giving women 44 seats) by increasing the number of seats from 301 to 345, canceling term limits and setting presidential terms at five years instead of seven. See “Ruling Party Announces new Amendments to the Constitution”; Carvajal, “Politics and Proxy Wars”.

47 The GPC controlled 214 seats out of 301 since the last parliamentary election in 2003. See Carapico, 2003.

48 Alley, 2010, p.390.

49 Phillips, 2010.

50 Alley, 2010, p. 399-400.

51 “Sana‘a Bulletin #3”.

52 See Dresch, 1989.

53 Dresch, 2000. p. 87.

54 Author was present near Change Square during residence in Sana’a between early February and early November 2011. See also “Anti-President protests in Yemen, 2 reported dead”; Raw Video, Yemen Protests.

55 Dresch, 2000.

56 This narrative became part of Ṣāliḥ’s speeches during Friday protests held at Sab‘īn Road from March to April 2011, and was repeated during radio broadcasts and formed part of news reports. Author expanded on this new narrative and its impact on the uprising of 2011 in November 22, 2011 at the book launching of “Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity” by Laurent Bonnefoy, hosted by Chatham House in London, UK.

57 Craig, 2011.

58 See ICG, 2013.

59 See UNSC Resolution 2140 (2014).

60 Journalists interviewed in Sana’a claim al-Ulā paper (with Muḥammad ‘Aysh as its Editor in Chief) holds about 12,000 copies in circulation since 2011. While al-Yaman al-Yawm (Yemen Today) carries about 10,000 copies daily, journalists point to an increased appeal among the general population after the “failed revolution” as attacks on Iṣlāḥ, Shaykh Ḥamīd al-Aḥmar and Gen. ‘Alī Muḥsin increased.

61 Information provided to author by Yemeni journalist during interview in December 2013.

62 Conversations during author’s visit to Sana’a in 2013 with journalists working at various newspapers. Recently, local media reported ‘Alī Muḥsin denied claims of his relationship with Yemen Fox, nearly three years after these first surfaced.

63 The General People’s Congress holds 238 out of 301 seats in parliament.

64 Events of August 2014, where Ḥūthī leader Sayyid ‘Abd al-Malik b. Badr al-Dīn al-Ḥūthī launched a protest movement in Sana’a after fuel subsidies were lifted by order of President ‘Abd Rabūh Manṣūr Hādī, further illustrated the degree of coordination between Ṣāliḥ clients and al- Hūthī as GPC elements joined the anti-government protests.

65 Salmoni, 2010; Rand, 2010.

66 Author attended a number of qāt chews in Sana’a at the homes of GPC officials where Ḥūthī journalists and NDC delegates would often join the gatherings and discuss a number of political issues in-depth.

67 Wedeen, 2007, p. 60.

68 Ibid, p. 64.

69 Ibid, p. 65.

70 Ibid, p. 64.

71 Ibid.

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Référence électronique

Fernando Carvajal, « Resilience in Time of Revolution: Saleh’s instruments of survival in Yemen (2011-2015) », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 4 | 2015, mis en ligne le 16 octobre 2015, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Fernando Carvajal

University of Exeter (UK)
PhD Candidate in Arab and Islamic Studies

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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