While the scale of the protests in Yemen has so far remained modest in comparison to those in Egypt and Tunisia, the impact for a country already on the brink of failure could be significant. Yemen faces multiple internal conflicts—an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south, the seven-year Houthi rebellion in northern Sa’ada, and significant activity by a resurgent al-Qaeda. Even more threatening to the long-term future of Yemen are the serious economic problems—endemic poverty and chronically high levels of unemployment that are aggravated by rampant corruption and explosive population growth. 

Under these circumstances, a protest movement that challenges the grip of President Ali Abdullah Saleh threatens not only the regime but also the state, potentially accelerating its collapse. This is a matter of grave concern for the United States and the international community. The Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the most active node of the terrorist organization and a further weakening of Yemen would make efforts to contain AQAP even more difficult.

Protests in Yemen have been relatively small in size and mostly non-violent so far, with an estimated 16,000 participants during earlier protests at the end of January. Subsequent demonstrations have grown and spread beyond the capital Sana'a to additional cities. And protests could easily escalate into violent confrontation. Personal ownership of small arms is widespread—there are an estimated 60 million weapons for a population of 23 million. 

Furthermore, the Yemeni military and security forces are not geared toward de-escalating protest and avoiding open confrontation, but luckily practiced restraint so far. In advance of the February 3 demonstrations, for example, checkpoints were set up around Sana'a to search for weapons and elite units of the military were stationed around key government facilities. Pro-government (and presumably well-armed) tribesmen from outside Sana'a surrounded Yemen’s Tahrir Square, stating they would stop protesters if they tried to approach. There was a real risk of violence. The crisis was defused, however, when the opposition announced late that day its plan to relocate demonstrations to Sana'a University. In the end, there were reportedly only a few skirmishes in Sana'a during the February 3 protests. The pro-government tribesmen continue to occupy Tahrir Square and demand that the opposition Joint Meeting Parties accept President Saleh’s concessions.

Government concessions and opposition response

Shortly after the fall of the Ben Ali government in Tunisia, the Saleh regime announced a package of economic concessions designed to pacify growing demands. It sought to maintain the allegiance of the military and security forces by announcing pay raises and even access to free food and gas. It addressed the concerns of civil servants by putting into immediate effect salary increases for the lowest paid employees originally scheduled for October 2011. It cut the national income tax by half and reportedly increased some subsidies and introduced new price controls.  The government also waved university tuition fees for currently enrolled students and announced a scheme to help new university graduates find employment. Finally, it extended social welfare assistance to an additional half-million families.

When economic measures failed to quell the discontent, President Saleh turned to political concessions—apparently in response to encouragement, if not urging, from Washington. In a speech to the parliament and shura council on February 2, he announced that he would not stand for re-election in 2013 and that his eldest son and presumed heir, General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, commander of the Republican Guard, would also not run for president. He “froze” the implementation of a controversial constitutional amendment eliminating term limits on the presidency.

Saleh also stated that regional governors would now be directly elected rather than indirectly elected by local councils, a little noticed but important change. Yemeni stability will depend in large part on greater local autonomy and de-evolution of control from the capital to the governorates, which will require stronger leaders at the local level. And finally, he called for the formation of a national unity government and the re-launching of the stalled national dialogue process, and postponed parliamentary elections scheduled for this April to allow time to properly prepare. 

Although the regime had nominally met almost all its demands, the opposition promptly rejected the concessions, not trusting the president to keep his promises. Saleh had previously pledged not to seek reelection, but had gone back on his word numerous times. Moreover, the protestors felt that the 2013 presidential election was too far away for the immediate change they were hoping for. Instead, the opposition pledged to continue to demonstrate every Thursday in March.

Escalating protests not yet an urgent threat to the regime

Rather than reducing tensions, Saleh’s February 2 speech appears to have emboldened the opposition. Protests the next day drew large numbers, in excess of 20,000 in Sana’a, with similar protests in seven of the 21 governorates. Crowds took to the streets in Ibb and Taiz, while in Aden police arrested protesters and in Mukalla the security forces used tear gas and opened fire on demonstrators. 

Protests in Yemen have so far not been particularly threatening to the regime. Unlike in Cairo and Tunis, the protests in Sana'a are not broad based. The opposition is fragmented and poorly organized, and the country lacks a sizable middle class. Internet penetration is low and social media tools are far less common in Yemen—rather than Twitter and Facebook, organizers have used text messages and pamphlets. By and large, the current unrest amounts to little more than jockeying among the country’s elites as they seek to maximize their negotiating positions—not a revolution driven by the people. How this might change as protests continue and spread, however, is not known.

Even limited protest, though, may have a profound impact on a fragile state like Yemen. The greatest challenge to Yemen’s stability is the rapid deterioration of the economy, which exacerbates every other problem. The country is facing a 27 percent budget deficit this year and oil—the most important source of income—is expected to run out in the next decade. Moreover, in 2010 foreign currency reserves fell by over $500 million (approximately 10 percent). The unfunded populist social welfare measures the government announced to allay the protestors will only exacerbate the deficit and accelerate Yemen’s looming economic collapse.

The consequences of state collapse in Yemen for the United States and the international community are significant as there is an immediate counterterrorism concern in Yemen. AQAP is a direct threat to U.S. national interests and it is now recognized as the most serious threat of all al-Qaeda’s regional franchises.

There is fear in Washington and elsewhere that if the Yemeni government is focused on quelling domestic political unrest (and devoting greater military assets to staying in power), then it is not focused on dealing with AQAP. As a result, U.S. security may suffer. The Saleh regime can be criticized from many points of view, but at this point no one in Washington—or London, Brussels, or Riyadh—wants to see the government overthrown because there is currently no viable alternative or identified successor to Saleh. Greater instability in Yemen will expand the country’s ungoverned spaces and give AQAP more room to plot, plan, and launch operations regionally and internationally.