Last night it was easy to get carried away in the excitement of Mubarak’s resignation and, as my facebook feed illustrated, most of my friends in Cairo did just that. I spent the evening at high table at an Oxford college surrounded by economists and even they spent the whole dinner talking but about Cairo and the future of Egypt and the Arab world.
But now, the morning after, it is time to ask ourselves some questions about what comes next. I have my own pet theories on Egypt, but when it comes to umm al-dunya I’m much more of a hobbyist than anything else. I do, however, have some definite thoughts on Yemen.
For the past few weeks I have constantly pointed to two things that would be signs of trouble on the horizon for President Salih. The first was when and if Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. That has now happened. The second was if spontaneous protests started to form outside of the JMP, and last night, for really the first time, we saw that when some protesters took to the streets to celebrate the fall of Mubarak.
As you can imagine these celebrations – in towns from Sayyun, Taizz, and Sanaa – quickly morphed into calls for President Salih to follow Mubarak’s lead. In Sanaa’s Tahrir Square thugs from the regime beat off protesters with sticks and batons, according to multiple news reports as well as Human Rights Watch.
This is just the beginning. There is no guarantee that Yemen will go the way of Tunisia or Egypt, but For me President Salih’s regime is entering a crucial period. The next three months, roughly until unification day on May 22, will be critical for his regime.
Unlike what many outside experts would have you believe, this period will hinge much less on Salih’s skill than on the decisions normal Yemenis make for themselves. If the people are going to rise up as in Tunisia and Egypt there is very little that Salih will be able to do about it. He is no less skilled than Ben Ali or Mubarak, but neither is he better able to fend off wide-spread popular protests.
Two other points, which I think are important. First, I don’t think the opposition, by which I mean the political opposition (the JMP) has much of a clue as to what it is doing at the moment. I think it is fractured and unsure of what steps to take. It is looking for leadership but not really getting any, or rather getting too much: everyone wants to be their own leader. Like everyone else, if there are widespread protests it will try to ride the wave, but it won’t be the one who launched it.
Second, one thing that you won’t hear a lot about over the coming weeks but is incredibly important, is who is no longer a player. Particularly Yemen’s Old Wise Men, who have died off recently. The two most important of these are Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar and Mujahid Abu Shuwarib both of Hashid. Their combined 14 sons are around and are important players, but none of them have the pull or sway of their fathers.
Yemen will miss their presence in the weeks to come.