Are Yemen's protests going to bring another revolution?

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Yemen's capital of Sanaa. But they appear to be pushing democratic reforms more than Tunisia-style revolution.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Opposition supporters shout slogans during an anti-government rally in Sanaa, Yemen, January 27. Thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of Sanaa on Thursday to demand a change of government, inspired by the unrest that has ousted Tunisia's leader and spread to Egypt this week.

Two days after Yemen’s political opposition called for a national uprising against the leadership of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital city of Sanaa, calling for the removal of what they view as a persistently corrupt regime.

A crowd of men, wearing pink bandanas in support of Tunisia’s recent revolution, flooded the streets in four different locations in Sanaa. They waved Yemen’s red, white, and black flag and carried posters that read, “We’ve had enough suppression," "We’ve had enough corruption,” and “We are next” – written above a picture of the Tunisian flag.

“I am here today to express that we need a change in the president, that we refuse corruption, and that we are against constitutional changes that will allow the president to be president for life,” says Ali Al Hossany, an employee at Yemen’s education ministry.

But while protesters have drawn inspiration from Tunisia's revolution, the real effect of Yemen's protests is likely to be more modest than regime change. Rather, Yemen's coalition of opposition parties seeks to tap the post-Tunisia revolution energy in Yemen to pressure the ruling party to make reforms that they had sought months before the Tunisian uprising began.

“There is no reason for this protests to development into a movement that could bring trouble to the regime,” says Abdulghani Al-Iryani, an independent Yemeni political analyst. “The police have been very responsible and constrained. If they continue like that, that’s a good sign.”

“[T]o stop these demonstrations the ruling party needs to go back to the negotiating table,” he says. “The ruling party can give concessions that will satisfy the demands of JMP without even threatening its dominant position in parliament and political life. I think the positive result [of the protests] will be that the regime will call for national dialogue.”

Regime change is unlikely

Despite the fierce anti-Saleh rhetoric, today’s demonstrations in Sanaa were peaceful and lacked a heavy police presence – unlike Egypt's recent protests. One policeman relaxing inside his armed vehicle parked on the perimeter of one of today’s protests was preoccupied with reading the demonstrators' pro-opposition pamphlets.

The tone of the protest in front of Sanaa University was almost celebratory – traditional Yemeni music and dancing intermingled with opposition leaders’ speeches. Members of the political opposition spoke of the need for peaceful and democratic change, not violent revolt.

“We want real democracy, in a peaceful way. And we are against the continuation of Saleh’s authority,” says Ali Huraibi, journalist and member of Yemen’s socialist party.

The reality is that regime change is unlikely for this country, the poorest in the Arab world, says Gregory Johnsen, Yemen expert at Princeton University.

“Although [today’s protests] were certainly an echo of Tunisia, Yemen still has quite a way to go before we see the level of unrest of that brought down Ben Ali's government,” says Mr. Johnsen. “One key indicator will be when we start see crowds of this size organizing in multiple cities throughout Yemen outside of the umbrella of the opposition.”

No one wants an uprising

The most pressing concerns causing friction between the ruling party and the opposition are proposed constitutional amendments that would abolish presidential term limits and the timing of the upcoming parliamentary election in April. The entire opposition has refused to take part in the elections if they are not postponed.

No parties involved want to see clashes in Yemen like there have been in Tunisia and Egypt, particularly not the United States government, which has an vested interest in keeping Yemen stable. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based organization that claimed responsibility for two major attack attempts against the US, has already taken advantage of the insecurity in Yemen’s countryside by setting up a base in areas outside of government control. There’s fear that chaos, even if brought on by pro-democracy uprising, makes it easier for Al Qaeda to operate in the country.

Washington is worried about political upheaval in Yemen because it isn't sure what would happen next,” Johnsen said. “And given the last two attempts by AQAP to attack the US homeland, the government has to concern itself with how Al Qaeda could take advantage of any potential chaos in Yemen.”

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