After more than 40 people were killed on March 18 in Sanaa, Yemen, where security forces and regime loyalists opened fire on protesters, the bonds that hold the delicate country together are increasingly fraying. For years, a combination of security and economic problems threatened the country, yet they were never able to topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government. But in recent weeks, grassroots frustrations have spurred disgruntled youth to challenge a regime that is clearly willing to use brute force to suppress their demands. And with neither side willing to back down, they are slowly inching Yemen toward the abyss.
In a society where violence is a preferred form of diplomacy, it should come as no surprise that Saleh unleashed his security forces on peaceful demonstrators. In the past, tribesmen in regions hostile to the regime killed soldiers who sought water from their wells, while clans seeking concessions from the government kidnapped foreign ambassadors to express their frustrations. In Yemen, politics is a blood sport.
Having witnessed the fall of three presidents -- two of whom were assassinated -- in the four years before he took power, Saleh has long been prepared for threats to his rule. To solidify his power, he created a military that is loyal to him rather than the state. Following the model of his long-time ally, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Saleh chose a senior staff based on family ties rather than merit. Almost all top military positions are held either by his kin or by members of his extended Sanhan tribe. They have as much to lose as Saleh does if he is deposed.
For years, many Yemen observers argued that the dilemmas the country faced -- a secession movement in the south, a sectarian rebellion in the north, and a flourishing al Qaeda affiliate -- threatened to implode the country. But as I argued shortly after the 2009 Christmas Day bombing, these challenges were unlikely to bring down the regime. Security unrest could never really cripple a land that has experienced political turmoil for a thousand years. Historical instability has rendered Yemenis largely inured to a level of violence that would be considered chaos in most countries.
Widespread societal frustrations, not regional grievances or jihadism, are at the root of the current protests. In a country where 65 percent of the population is under 25, Yemenis are understandably more interested in finding employment and weeding out corruption than in eliminating al Qaeda operatives in remote tribal regions. New cadres of college graduates have protested outside government offices in Ibb demanding jobs. Workers have crippled the port in Hudaydah, calling for the resignation of superiors who grew rich at the public's expense.
The Yemeni people's resolve has shaken the regime, and it is beginning to reveal its cracks. Senior provincial officials have quit their posts. Almost two dozen parliamentarians have resigned from the ruling General People's Congress party. State electric workers have gone on strike in Taiz. Even the military has not been spared. In the northern province of Saada, where a rebellion has flared for the past seven years, soldiers mutinied against their senior commander. The regime is hemorrhaging defections.
But more worrisome for Saleh than these desertions is the ripple effect the unrest is causing among his chief backers -- the tribes. For the first time in Saleh's 32-year rule, most of the tribes in the two largest confederations oppose the president. And even among the clans that have remained loyal, such as Bayt Lahum and Banu Suraym, his support is far from secure. Saleh has been able to win over the chiefs with lavish financial promises and government posts, but the average tribesmen, who rarely benefit from this patronage, have turned against him.