Yemen Politics: "Like Dancing on the Heads of Snakes”

The Yemen expert describes the major changes he’s witnessed in visiting and studying the country, and the “three layers of crisis” that it confronts today.
  • Transcript


Question: What specific areas of Middle Eastern and Yemeni life do you study?

Gregory Johnsen: Certainly. I can tell a little bit about my background. That might be helpful. I first went to the Middle East as a study abroad student in my junior year and I studied at the American University of Cairo. Then after graduation I joined the Peace Corps in Jordan and so I was there in 2001, 2002 for about 18 months. We got evacuated before the war in Iraq started. And then I was a Fulbright fellow in Yemen in 2003, 2004. Then in 2005 I was a fellow for the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, and I went back to Yemen. In 2006 I led a group of college, university and graduate students to Yemen as part of a State Department program for them to study Arabic. And then this last year I was once again in Yemen in July and August doing some of my own research for an upcoming book.

At the moment I’m working on two separate projects. One is my dissertation at Princeton which everyone’s very eager for me to finish, mostly my advisor and my mom and dad. And that’s on the Yemeni civil war in the north in the 1960’s. And so, what I’m hoping to do is really look at sort of the internal dynamics of the war. There's been a great deal written about this is really through the lens of the Arab cold war talking about Egyptian involvement, Saudi involvement in the war. My hope is to really get at the Yemeni actors themselves. I think in the couple of years of research that I’ve done, I’ve had some great sources and great material.

The second project that I’m working on is much more contemporary and this is to deal with the history of Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Yemeni political history, particularly since unification in 1990.

Question: What changes have you witnessed in Yemen since you first began studying it?

Gregory Johnsen: Right. I think there are a number of changes that Yemen has undergone in the past several years. I first went there in 2003 and this is really very shortly after the September 11th attacks, of course, in 2001 and this is still, at least as I tend it analyze what's happen there in what I like to call the first phase of the war against Al-Qaeda. So, from that point in 2003 to my most recent trip in July and August of 2009, a great deal has changed. The tension within Sana’a is something that I noticed a great deal on my last trip. It was something that even while almost ironically the number of weapons that are being carried within the city of Sana’a has been greatly reduced. The government has done a very good job of attempting to control the small arms that different individuals carry, particularly within in the city limits of Sana’a, not so much outside.

But, while that number has went down, the tensions have actually increased and this is a result, at least in my view, of the civil war that’s going on up in the north in Sa’dah, the resurgent Al-Qaeda threat as well as the increasing - increasingly, I think, violent calls for secession from the south. So, that was something that really, really stood out to me.

Another thing, and this is just by way of anecdote, that one very good Yemeni friend, a journalist who’s I think a very astute observer of Yemeni politics said, was he told me that "I can no longer tell the difference between Al-Qaeda in the mosques and Al-Qaeda in the caves." And I think this is something that should be a great cause for a concern. It was something that I took away from the trip as being very, very worried about. I think this really gets at the idea that Al-Qaeda is putting a message and a narrative out within Yemen that really isn’t being combated at any meaningful level, either by the Yemeni government or by the U.S. government or even by different clerics and sheikhs and scholars within the Yemeni - within Yemen who tend to disagree with them.

Question: What factors are contributing to the spread of militant Islam in Yemen?

Gregory Johnsen: Certainly. I think when - I think that - I guess the best way to get at this is sort of to give you a little snapshot of Yemen because I think when talking about Yemen, when thinking about Yemen, it’s really, really easy to become overwhelmed by just the totality of the crises that country faces. And so, I tend to view the country as having these three separate layers of crises if you will.

At the top there's this elite rivalry. There's this struggle for power. This is taking place behind closed doors, but it’s something that really, I think, effects all the other levels of and layers of crises within the country. President Ali Abdallah Saleh has been president since 1978. He saw the country through unification in 1990. He saw the country through the civil war that happened four years later when the south attempted to secede and he continues to really, I think, maintain this delicate balancing act. He likes to claim that ruling Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes, and this is something that he’s done very, very well, but it’s something that increasingly it seems as if he’s losing a little bit of his grip.

Now, whether this is just because he’s getting older or whether this is because he’s running out of money and is not longer sort of able to play different opposition groups off against one another is keeping them all perpetually dependent. I think that’s still a little bit of an open question. But, what we have now is all these - this next generation of leaders if you will. So, you have the president’s son, you have a quartet of nephews who are all sort of attempting to position themselves to seize power once the president eventually leaves.

In addition to that, you have another very powerful family. A tribal family, the Al-Akmar family, who’s also attempting to seize power or at least position themselves in a place where they could have a shot at taking power.

And so, this is all going on at the top. It’s something that people within Yemen talk about, speculate on, but it’s very much sort of palace politics. Something that there's much more rumor than fact.

Then below this we have, in this second layer if you will, we have a trio of security crises. We have the, of course, resurgent Al-Qaeda threat. We have the civil war up in the north, the Al-Houthi rebellion that I reference earlier, and then the cause for secession from the south. So, these - this trio of security challenges, I think, have really grabbed the majority of the headlines in 2008, 2009 and as we move forward, particularly the Al-Qaeda threat will grab most of the headlines in the future.

Then below this we have, I think, what could really be described as sort of a - almost the structurally challenges to the state. This is the fact that the state, which is heavily dependent upon oil revenue, is running out of oil. It’s losing water. The water table is dropping by, say, six to eight meters in some areas of the country, which for a country where the vast majority of the population still is dependent upon sustenance agriculture for their livelihood, this is a very significant thing.

There’s rampant corruption in the government. A very high birthrate correspondingly very rates of literacy within the country. Unemployment is very high; poverty is very high. So, you really, at this level, you have sort of a laundry list. And so, that’s sort of the snapshot of Yemen, at least as I see it at the moment.

Recorded on January 25, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen