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In Yemen rebellion, snakes have bitten

By Daniel Martin Varisco, Special to CNN
  • Daniel Martin Varisco: Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime appears to be near its end in Yemen
  • Varisco says unemployed rebels have little to lose, but Saleh has many enemies from years of rule
  • He says Saleh facing civil war, tribal rebellions and has lost loyalty of military commanders
  • Varisco: In end, war on terror aided dictators, but will of hopeful citizens will rout them

Editor's note: Daniel Martin Varisco is a professor of anthropology at Hofstra University and has visited Yemen more than a dozen times for development consulting and research since 1978. He moderates Tabsir, an academic blog on Islam and the Middle East.

(CNN) -- While the world focuses on bombing raids in Libya, a different scenario has been unfolding in Yemen, which would be the first country outside of North Africa in this recent era of uprisings to lose its long-term strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saleh has been a clever politician, coming to power in 1978 a decade after a protracted civil war ended in North Yemen. His two predecessors were assassinated. It is not surprising that Saleh has observed that being in charge of Yemen's diverse population is like dancing on the heads of snakes.

His dance is almost over. The snakes have bitten.

Taking their cue from the unemployed young people in the streets of North Africa, students feel that they have nothing to lose since there are so few jobs available after graduation.

But their protests are garden-variety compared with the major enemies Saleh has created during his three decades of autocratic rule. Since the 1994 civil war that allowed northern hegemony over the former socialist South Yemen, the growing unrest there has resulted in repeated calls for secession.

Near the border with Saudi Arabia, a tribal rebellion has festered openly for more than six years. Recently several powerful tribal sheikhs joined the resistance, as have all the religious parties. Now even Saleh's top military commanders are calling for his resignation.

Regime change is coming to Yemen. As a scholar who has lived and conducted research in Yemen since 1978, I argued in earlier commentaries that Yemen's president would probably weather the storm of protests. After all, he had a well-equipped army and security apparatus in a country no one faction can easily control.

Dozens dead in Yemen clashes
State of emergency in the Middle East
Yemen's youth and social media

But now all bets are off. Pundits, like me, have trusted conventional wisdom over the sheer willpower of ordinary people to overthrow repression. The Middle East is emerging from the cocoon of dictatorial fatalism, and no current regime can avoid the impact, even those that survive.

Our global war on terror, announced after the tragedy of 9/11, gave dictators in the region an extra life. All of them claimed to be the bulwark against the threat of Islamic rule. And both the Bush and Obama administrations took the bait. We poured out millions of dollars in military aid to help Saleh fight al Qaeda. But no one seemed to realize that doling out weapons to dictators was like adding gasoline to a fire.

Al Qaeda served the interests of his regime by its continued presence. Futile attempts such as that of the suspected "underwear bomber" show the weakness of self-styled Islamists that we foolishly took for strength.

There are several lessons to be learned by the surge of political protests that started this year in Tunisia. One of the major ones is that liberation from oppressive dictators inspires ordinary people far more than the preaching of religious fanatics. It is our ignorance of the diversity of views in the Middle East that makes these protests seem so surprising.

Saleh argued that only he could keep Yemen from stumbling back into tribal bedlam and an Islamic kingdom. But the tribal dynamics I first saw in rural Yemen during the late 1970s were far more democratic and fair than the self-serving "peoples" party of the president and his cronies. In fact, the tribes have represented civil society in much of Yemen in the absence of a strong and sincere national government.

In Yemen there is no monolithic anti-Western brand of Islam. Yemen has its outrageous clerics, as we do in America, but there will be no Iranian-style "Islamic revolution" here.

I once quoted Saleh's remark that Yemen was not Tunisia. Neither is Yemen Egypt, nor Libya, nor Bahrain. Yemen is Yemen, a terra incognita for most Americans. Of all the countries with protests, Yemen is the poorest. Once a bread basket of the Arabian Peninsula, it can no longer feed its growing population of 23 million people.

Water for consumption and irrigation is running out as wells must be dug deeper and deeper. There is no easy fix for the development problems facing Yemen. But the Yemeni people are resilient. Their country, however it is shaped politically in the coming months, will be a breeding ground for hope, not a staging area for terrorism.

Saleh was wrong. What he should fear are not the fangs of snakes, but the mouths of the hungry, and the angry fists of those who have been shut out of a future. Spring has come to Yemen, and there is dancing in the streets.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Martin Varisco.

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