Following the resignation of Tunisia’s leader on January 14th, mass demonstrations throughout Yemen began four days later on January 18th. Similar to the recent protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the goal of the protests in Yemen is to oust their leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has led Yemen since July 1978 or nearly 33 years. Despite the demand for Saleh to step down, Saleh has refused to leave power and has responded to protesters with brute force. In fact, the death toll of the Yemen demonstrations has already surpassed 160 protesters.
Violence against protesters particularly escalated on March 18th, when snipers opened fire against protesters in the capital city of Sana’a and killed 52 individuals. This massacre not only resulted with hundreds of others who were wounded, but also with a majority of fatalities from systematic gunshots either in the head or neck. Another wave of barbaric force against protesters occurred today, when gunmen from rooftops killed at least a dozen protesters in Sana’a. The video below shows a chaotic moment from March 18th.
Clearly, Saleh’s regime is responding with violence, which comes after a failed attempt to restore order through nonviolent promises. The day before February 3rd, when protesters organized a mass demonstration referred to as a “Day of Rage,” Saleh attempted to restore order with a promise not to seek reelection in 2013. Though, this promise did not mean much to Yemenis, who heard the same promise from Saleh before his most recent reelection in 2006.
Saleh also promised not to transfer power to his son in 2013, as well as an immediate $47 a month raise for civil servants and military personnel. These concessions, however, were apparently insubstantial to protesters, who expressed praise for the announcements, but that they would not call off the demonstrations until Saleh steps down.
Along with the mass demonstrations across the region, a backdrop of domestic problems have encouraged the protests in Yemen. With a population of about 24 million, Yemen has a high unemployment rate of 35%, as well as almost a majority (45%) of the country living below the poverty line. Additionally, food and water shortages further exacerbate instability.
On top of these dismal indicators, Yemen also faces a domestic threat from al-Qaeda. Branches of al-Qaeda have even gone as far as to plan attacks on American soil, as exemplified with the failed attempt to detonate an explosive device on an international flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
The al-Qaeda threat is also illustrated with the US Military’s conduction of secret military operations in Yemen, such as air strikes against al-Qaeda militants, as this WikiLeaks cable revealed. What’s more, the cable reveals that Saleh is a partner in the War on Terror and receives monetary aid from the US. In 2009 alone, the US provided $5 million worth of elite training for counterterrorism forces.
In the past five years, Yemen has received at least $300 million from the US, according to Human Rights Watch. After the March 18th massacre, many humanitarian organizations called on the US to suspend aid to Yemen, but the US has not done so, nor has the US publicly called for Saleh to step down.
Simultaneously, the US has taken broad military actions against the violent crackdown of peaceful protesters in Libya. Some have argued this intervention in Libya would call for similar action in Yemen. Though, the US stance against the Libyan unrest is distinguishable from Yemen for at least two reasons.
Perhaps the most obvious distinction is the death toll of protesters. Even though the death toll of the Yemen protests has already exceeded 160 individuals, as previously mentioned, there were over 6,000 casualties within three weeks of protests in Libya. As a result, the greater amount of civilian casualties in Libya likely prompted the more aggressive response in Libya.
A second distinction between the US approach to Yemen and Libya is a concern for who would assume control if the respected leader of each country was ousted. Since there is a much more visible threat from al-Qaeda in Yemen, a quick revolution in Yemen is more likely to devolve into an even worse government.
With President Obama and his administration remaining silent on the Yemeni unrest, these two distinctions shows how the scale of intervention in Libya is unlikely to occur in Yemen. Regardless of international assistance, the protesters in Yemen have bravely vowed to demonstrate until Saleh steps down.