April 28, 2011 — Gregory Johnsen joined us for a briefing (via video conference from Cairo) on recent developments in Yemen and the implications for US national security. Mr. Johnsen is a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he served as a member of the USAID’s conflict assessment team for Yemen.
Johnsen began his discussion by giving a background of the current crisis in Yemen. He explained that the traditional opposition parties began to protest the rule of President Saleh in January 2011 but failed to get any traction with the wider Yemeni population. However, after the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, large groups of youth protestors came out to demand the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Key events in March, including the sniper attack on protesters on March 18th and the defection of a powerful army General on March 21st, increased the pressure on President Saleh, and since then there has been a stalemate between President Saleh’s remaining familial supporters and the protesters.
Johnsen described the opposition movement and explained that there was little that united the grouping other than its rejection of President Saleh. He worried that beyond the demand that Saleh resign, there is very little the groups agreed on. Yemen faces an upcoming water shortage in the next decade and its oil reserves are expected to run out as well. The country suffers from crippling poverty and a Houthi insurgency in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. If the opposition fails to address these issues, then even if President Saleh steps down, little may actually change in the country.
Johnsen then addressed questions related to how the US could respond to the unrest in Yemen. He described the Al Qaeda militants as the most aggressive group attempting direct attacks at the US. Johnsen worried that with President Saleh focused on saving his presidency, the government will not pressure Al Qaeda. Whenever this grouping in Yemen has been given room to operate they have been capable of plotting attacks. He said that if a new government was installed in Yemen, it would likely continue security cooperation with the US but that will take time during any government transition and that could give Al Qaeda room to operate.
He explained that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan for a transition in governance is looked on with suspicion by the youth protest movement. President Saleh has used political plans like this in the past to extend his rule and outmaneuver opposition groups. That is why the youth protesters continue to demand his immediate resignation. Johnsen argued that the least bad option was for President Saleh to step down immediately. Yemen will most likely continue to face serious economic, political and environmental crises but if President Saleh continues to refuse to step down he will poison the political well and none of these major issues will be addressed while he fights to maintain power. While the US has little political leverage, it could encourage Saudi Arabia and the GCC to provide economic and political aide during the transition and work towards joint security cooperation to combat Al Qaeda.
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