Shortly after last month’s bloody crackdown on opposition protesters in Yemen by supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an argument broke out at a market in Sana’a, the capital. Young men – some of whom backed the revolt and others the head of state – gesticulated with theatrical antagonism, in another apparent sign of the nation’s disintegration.
Yet close up, something more interesting was occurring: at times the debaters pressed their hands reassuringly on each other’s arms to show no harm was meant, while members of the crowd applauded or laughed when anyone made a particularly good point.
The civilised disagreement was a quiet rebuke to those who assume the end of Mr Saleh’s 32-year rule will mean bloody chaos – or, perhaps worse, the triumph of extremist elements.
Many have expressed concern that the removal of Yemen’s strongman would unleash anarchic competition between the powerful tribes, secessionists and religious fundamentalists who have thrived in this impoverished but strategically important country.
Those fears are amplified by the nation’s reputation for militancy and the colourful preponderance of ceremonial daggers and AK47s. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, voiced these anxieties last month by saying the collapse of Saleh’s government would be “a real problem” for the US.
Yet such views overlook the crucial fact that – unlike many of its fellow Arab states gripped by revolution this year – Yemen has a long history of managing competition between different power centres through negotiation and compromise.
Mr Saleh may rank behind only Muammer Gaddafi in the league of the world’s long-ruling dictators, but he has long recognised both the limits of his own resources and the value of strategic laisser faire. While police states such as President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt had, more or less, a monopoly on violence, certain tribes in Yemen are thought to possess anti-aircraft missiles and even tanks.
Mr Saleh has been ruthless with dissent he considers either sufficiently threatening or weak enough to be overwhelmed by a show of force, but under his rule religious sheikhs have fulminated against corruption, newspapers have criticised the government, and an opposition leader has appeared on television calling him a traitor.
The chaos outside Sana’a may appear dangerous, but it is widely held by analysts to be scarcely more unstable than the status quo before the uprising began. As in some other states on the brink of failure, the price of chaos makes Yemen’s politicians and warlords think twice before pushing their country over the edge.
The worries about Mr Saleh’s departure causing a power vacuum seem to have more force in the realm of formal politics. The president’s party is dominant, and the opposition coalition has been hampered by divisions between the Sunni Islamists of Islah, the main opposition party, their old enemies in the Socialist party, and Zaydis, whose members adhere to an offshoot of Shiism.
Yet even here there are reasons for, if not quite optimism, at least qualifications to the doomsday scenarios that some are busy sketching out. Many democrats in the political elite are keenly aware of the threat that a political vacuum could be filled by non-democratic forces, but nonetheless feel that present circumstances offer, as Mohammed Abou Lahoum, a dissident official from within the ruling party, says, “one of the very rare opportunities of the last 50 to 100 years”.
Mr Saleh undoubtedly centralised power more than any of his predecessors, and as the alliances that enabled him to do so unravel, the system is likely to become more unpredictable with the possibility of violent confrontation. But it is wrong to assume Yemeni society is somehow not ready for the strongman’s removal.
Yemenis, scarred by civil wars and foreign interventions, have evolved surprisingly resilient conflict-management mechanisms, a preference for consensus-building and an almost infuriating ability to see all sides of an issue at once. They are as ready for democracy as anyone.
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