With pro-democracy demonstrations billowing around his regime, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has held his post for more than thirty years, warned on March 22 that the country is balanced on the precipice of “a bloody war” within its own borders. Saleh, whose offer to step down at the start of 2012 was rejected by his opposition, invoked “the will of the people” to vindicate his government, adding, “It is impossible for a minority to control the fate of the nation.”
But domination of the multitudes by a small, elite minority has been the governing norm in Yemen for generations, embodying the model of statism itself. As Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Everywhere there is the same pyramidal structure,” a coercively-imposed system of interconnected hierarchies adapted to let indolent elites live off of the work of the industrious. Saleh’s refusal to abdicate power is redolent of erstwhile Egyptian President Mubarak’s obdurate insistence on staying in office — an insistence that crumbled in short order — and the similarities don’t end there.
Widespread protests against Mubarak’s authoritarian system, indurated through its partnership with the United States, led to the rise of a small cabal of military elites. The popularity of Egypt’s military provided fertile ground for the seeds of political opportunism, allowing the generals to ride a movement grounded on woolly ideas about democracy into the halls of power.
And now that the votes are in from Saturday’s (March 19) constitutional referendum — its terms set by a legal committee appointed by the military — Egyptians are beginning to see that they may have overestimated the changes promised by the heady days of protest. Critics already charge that some among the proposed constitutional provisions would, reports The Guardian, “legalis[e] dictatorship,” creating a “top-down political system” with only “cosmetic differences” from the Mubarak era.
On that account, it’s little wonder that, with an eye to Egypt, Yemen’s military establishment has become quite enthralled with democracy of late. Even assuming that the desires of Yemen’s lowly privates genuinely center on democratic values, the generals at the top know well that it won’t be low-ranking soldiers holding the reins of the state after Saleh’s departure.