US must engage Yemen's real power-brokers
Yemen’s rural tribes will play a pivotal role in its future. With President Ali Abdullah Saleh's power eroded, US diplomats are going to have to leave the comfort of the capital and engage these tribes, whether in resolving the government crisis or countering Al Qaeda.
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There is no doubt that some of these diplomats could do effective work outside the capital if security paranoia calmed down. As someone who has traveled in rural Yemen, openly identifying myself as a non-Muslim American, moving about is not as hard as it’s made out to be.Skip to next paragraph
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It may be tempting to believe that the future of Yemen lies not with the tribes, but with the youthful protesters in Sanaa who are in their ninth month of an inconclusive revolution. Indeed, the tribes have thrown their support behind the protesters. The most prominent example is Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar’s public declaration of support in Sanaa’s Change Square. The sheikh is the most influential figure leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, Yemen’s most politically powerful tribal conglomerate.
While many protesters were quick to embrace tribal support of the urban protest movement, many members of the independent youth movement were less enthusiastic. Calling for a civil state and the rule of law, some protesters want the power of Yemen’s tribes to be thrown into the annals of history. Some even go so far as to call the tribesmen backward, standing against progress and democracy.
But Yemen’s independent youth have yet to demonstrate that they are capable of leading the country into a post-Saleh era of democracy. Lacking a specific plan for government or transition, the independent youth often release series of demands that are platitudinal and idealistic, proving themselves, thus far, to be ill-equipped to handle a transition of power, let alone a new Yemen.
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As the political crisis plays out in urban Yemen, tribes will still be the most powerful players in the country. It’s a reality that all sides in the crisis will have to consider when forming a new government. And it’s something the US must consider, too.
In a best-case scenario, a federal system would provide tribes local autonomy while remaining under the rule of law – and give tribes adequate representation in Sanaa. In a worst-case scenario, Yemen will not recover from today’s governance crisis and factions will continue fighting across the country.
In either case, Yemen’s tribes will play a pivotal role in the future of the country. It is in America’s best interest to develop relationships with the tribes and encourage them to negotiate over the country’s future. Diplomats are going to have to literally get dirty to make inroads in Yemen, whether in resolving the government crisis, or countering AQAP.
Jeb Boone is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of The Yemen Times.