- - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

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.

The second cause is over the past five or six years, Saleh has been trying to position his son to become the next president of Yemen. These efforts have split the top elite.

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.

Q: Many countries in the region are facing political unrest. How is Yemen’s crisis the same? How is it different?

A: It has many factors that are similar to Tunisia and Egypt and some that are similar to Libya.

The big factors that are similar are a deteriorating economy, a very large young population … and a political regime that is unable to respond to the aspirations of the young people. In that respect, the key thing that happened in Tunisia and in Egypt was that people realized that they no longer had to put up with the abuses of the security apparatus of the state.

Yemen is not like these countries in that the security apparatus is simply not as effective. There’s not an oppressed population that’s ruled by an all-present state. …

Yemen has a parliament, and they have elections. In 2006, the opposition actually did quite well in the presidential elections, but the opposition has gone moribund. They have sat for the last four years, and they actually lost a lot of control because of the movement in the south and the Houthi rebellion in the north. Those uprisings were not supported by the opposition, and they took away the power of the opposition on the street - that is, people didn’t really see them as very effective.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt suddenly reinvigorated the opposition, and they got quite strong. The good thing that has come from this for Yemen is that the Houthis in the north and the secessionists in the south have come back into the fold and are now supporting the opposition.

So now we see a broad and very powerful coalition with all these forces united, supported by the public, which bodes very well for Yemen.

Q: What is the United States’ interest in Yemen and how do you think the Obama administration has handled the situation so far?

A: Currently, Libya is on the top of the Middle Eastern agenda for the United States, but prior to the revolution, Yemen has been No. 1 for many years now, because of al Qaeda. …

The United States’ principal interest is reining in al Qaeda. They see al Qaeda as being as strong or second in strength to their influence in Pakistan. The difficulty is that Yemenis don’t see al Qaeda as a threat. Their principal problems are economic and political.

The United States has been training special forces and giving $150 million each year in military aid to Mr. Saleh, and Yemenis see the president abusing political rights in the country, and they feel that the United States is not backing its own ideals. They aren’t supporting political freedoms and civil rights by giving military aid to this man, so the Yemenis are ambivalent about the United States.

Now the Obama administration, so far, has played it quite well in that the negotiations happening between the president and the opposition are happening in the presence of American ambassadors and European representatives. The United States is now being seen as trying to bring stability to Yemen. …

The long-term result for international relations will depend on what sort of solution comes out of this situation. If it is one the people are happy with, then the Americans will be seen favorably.

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