Charles Schmitz is an associate professor in the department of geography at Towson University and president of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies. He has written extensively on Yemen, U.S.-Yemeni relations and politics in the Arab world. He was interviewed before a lecture Monday evening at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md.
Question: What do you see as the roots of the current problem in Yemen?
Answer: The problem has two main roots: One, presidents have ruled Yemen by using the divide-and-conquer method. Yemen is a society that is very decentralized. There are lots of very local powers in Yemen, and the way that everyone has ruled Yemen historically has been by building coalitions. …
But the problem now is that this president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had added a twist to it in that he tends to play everyone off against each other, so that no one can build a coalition against him. So he’s constantly causing conflicts in the countryside and between political parties. He switches back and forth, as he always wants to position himself as the reasonable center. …
The difficulty is he has caused so much conflict that everyone in Yemen is fed up. These conflicts have caused political and economic problems, and really, the uprising in the north led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and the secessionist movement in the south are a result of these divide-and-conquer policies.
In other words, Saleh’s strategy has created a union against himself.
Q: What is the most important thing about Yemen society or its political culture that you think Americans should know as they try to understand the current crisis?
A: I think it’s that Yemeni politics are what I call “liberative politics.” In other words, it is often said that the government doesn’t control anything outside of the main cities. That’s a misconception.
The central government, as I said, rules through negotiation, through deliberation, but not through a direct command and control of the countryside.
The Yemeni state today has more presence in the rural countryside than it ever had in the past. It has more schools, more government troops, tighter control of the border.
That’s a relative term, however, as it’s actually quite weak, but it’s not weak in terms of its influence. It has a great deal of influence in the form of tribal and religious alliances in the countryside.
Whoever comes to power, whether the president stays in a transitive government or if he leaves and an opposition group takes power, what really matters for Yemen is that the broadest possible set of actors are pulled back into the government and are allowed to have their opinions heard. This is the most important thing for Yemen.
American policymakers fear an unstable Yemen because, for them, instability means an opportunity for al Qaeda to take power. What Americans must understand is that al Qaeda is not going to take power.
In fact, instability can be a good thing, as it allows the opposition a little bit of leeway to have greater influence on the central government. So we have to beware of being afraid simply of instability and instead view it as an opportunity.