One thing about revolution is that it does not really fit in our 24/7 news-at-an-instant pace. Even the lighting fast speed (for revolutions) at which both the Egyptian and Tunisian governments fell took weeks not days. That pace is deceptive because a revolution is not just the fall of the old government but the establishment of a new one as well.
Further there are a lot of ways that revolutions can go. For Tunisia and Egypt they were relatively bloodless (though we should never forget there was loss of life in both) but that is not going to be the case in Libya, or Bahrain or apparently Yemen.
While the world is engrossed in watching NATO air power hammer Col. Kaddafi’s air defenses flat, there are developments in Yemen that could make the prodemocracy movement there look more like Libya than Egypt. Today at least two of Saleh’s generals have rebelled and thrown their support to the protesters.
For those who don’t know, or missed it in the welter of news from Japan and Libya last week, on March 18th the security forces of Yemeni President Ali Saleh and pro-government paramilitaries opened fire on a large protest in Taghyeer Square.
The crowd was estimated at tens of thousands and 46 were killed that day.
President Saleh has been trying to fend off the anger of the protesters since January. He previously announced that he would not run for another term as president when the current one expired. Previously he had given strict orders that his security forces not engage the protesters violently.
None of this was effective and the calls for his resignation have grown as other regimes in the region have either fallen or endured growing protests and rebellion of their own. Now things have taken a drastic turn.
After the killings at the March 18th protest President Saleh has fired his entire cabinet. He is claiming that no security forces have participated in the killings and arrest warrants for 10 people have been issued.
It is not just generals that are breaking with Saleh, Bloomberg is reporting that 24 members of his parliament and at least two diplomats have quit over the killings. This puts a much more serious spin on things.
The efforts to placate the protesters seem to be too little too late. As in Libya we are seeing members of the military and the government fall away from the leader and it is bringing Yemen to the trembling knife edge of civil war.
Yemen is a nation that has a history of civil war. There have been several since the 1960’s with President Saleh coming to power at the end of another in 1980’s.
The Telegraph is reporting that while the protesters have been besieging the capital the government has been attacking rebels in the northern Saada province where Shiite rebels have s strong hold. The UN Refugee agency is saying that as many as 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting there and many are trying to flee to the Saudi border.
All this is a right fine mess for the United States. The Yemeni government has been a moderately strong ally in its efforts against al-Qaeda, but even with those efforts it is the home of al-Qaeda in the Persian Gulf. From the Telegraph article:
President Barack Obama sent a letter this week to President Ali Abdullah Saleh pledging to “stand beside Yemen, its unity, security and stability”.
“The security of Yemen is vital for the security of the United States,” he said.
The United States has a vested interest in seeing some kind of stable government there. Not only do our ships in the Persian Gulf make port and refuel there, there is the ever present issue of oil that travels through that part of the world.
If Yemen degenerates into a full scale civil war again, there is the very real danger of it becoming a failed state. That could lead to a loss of ports and a greatly increased amount of piracy against oil tankers in the region. This is a big enough problem off the Somali coast without having it move into the Persian Gulf itself.
It is possible that we might see intervention from Saudi Arabia as we have seen in Bahrain. The Saudi Kingdom feels precarious enough without having two nations in full popular uprising or civil war on its boarders.
It seems unlikely to me that the United States will act to intervene in the Yemen, mostly because there is not a lot that we can do. We are stretched very thin right now between the NATO/UN no fly zone in Libya and war in Afghanistan and our winding down of operations in Iraq.
Even if we wanted to and had the assets, it is far from clear who we should back in this conflict. After all, Saleh is not exactly what you would call a democratic leader and the various factions in the popular upraising do not constitute a stable force in and of themselves as of yet.
This is the problem with revolutions. They run the gamut from (nearly) bloodless to vicious and prolonged civil war. And even when they are concluded you still can’t know going in what kind of government you will get and whether it will be better for the people or worse.
In the end we should never romanticize revolution. It is a desperate, dangerous choice and one should only be attempted when all else fails. The recent events show the consequences if things go wrong.
The floor is yours.