Arab authoritarians always claim that change is destabilizing and dangerous: Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Bahrain’s Khalifa and Libya’s Gaddafi have all used that argument to try and ward off the youth revolution that’s shaking up the region. If you topple us, they have argued, our countries will descend into chaos and fall in the hands of Islamic extremists.
That argument didn’t work for any of them, and it won’t work for Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’s looking increasingly vulnerable after two weeks of mounting anti-government protests across the country.
Regime change is long overdue in Yemen: in the three decades he’s been in power, Saleh has presided over a highly nepotistic, corrupt, and inept regime. It’s hard not to sympathize with the young Yemenis who want to change all that, starting with the top.
But unlike Egypt or Tunisia or Bahrain, Yemen is a seriously unstable place, one that already threatens global security. Al Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP has free reign of large portions of the country, and has already launched attacks on the US and Europe. Yemen also has two insurgencies. In the north for much of the past decade, a Shi’ite community known as the Houthi has fought Saleh’s forces to a standstill. In the south, separatists (known as Herak) have been seeking to undo the Yemeni unification of 1990.
Saleh’s abrupt departure would undoubtedly be to the advantage all three groups. While the rest of the world worries mainly about AQAP, ordinary Yemenis see a greater existentialist threat from the Houthi and Herak. It’s not hard to see how all three will gain from any post-Saleh instability. This would be bad news for Yemen’s neighbors and the rest of the world. The Saudis, for instance, would be loath to allow two ascendant Shi’ite movements on their borders — the opposition in Bahrain and the Houthi in Yemen. And chaos in Sana’a would allow AQAP to menace Europe and the US with impunity.
Saleh shouldn’t be allowed to use any of this as an excuse to stay in power: after all, his misrule is to blame for these problems in the first place. But the threat of Yemen imploding in his wake is real, so it’s important that there’s a “managed transition” (to use an expression dear to the Obama administration) in San’a.
Who will manage it? Luckily, Yemen is not like Libya, where no outside power has any leverage with an erratic dictator. The U.S. does have substantial influence, as do Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Saleh could be persuaded to go quietly, like Ben Ali. As in Egypt, a transitional government can run things until elections. There can be no talking with AQAP, of course, but the Houthi and the Herak can conceivably be persuaded to hold their fire (literally and figuratively) while the transitional authority addresses their grievances, which are rooted in corruption and unfair allocation of resources.
None of this will be easy. But any “managed transition” of Yemen must begin with the recognition that unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Yemen is highly unstable; and unlike Libya, its instability has the potential to hurt us all.