x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Yemen's opposition finds common goal

After two weeks of protests, demonstrators across Yemen no longer stand alone. On Saturday, two major tribal confederacies, the Hashid and the Bakeel, joined the protest movement demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh stand down. Twelve MPs have resigned from Mr Saleh's ruling party since the protests began. At the same time, the country has been swept by the largest anti-government demonstrations yet.

After two weeks of protests, demonstrators across Yemen no longer stand alone. On Saturday, two major tribal confederacies, the Hashid and the Bakeel, joined the protest movement demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh stand down. Twelve MPs have resigned from Mr Saleh's ruling party since the protests began. At the same time, the country has been swept by the largest anti-government demonstrations yet.

Since unification, Mr Saleh has presided over - and kept Yemen divided - by using an iron fist. As many Arab countries move towards political rebirth and reform, the regime in Sana'a is a timely reminder that the impetus for change may have similar roots, but these are very different governments. More than any other country in the Middle East, Yemen's future as a state has been in question, riven by the legacy of civil war, a Houthi insurgency in the north and swaths of territory that are outside federal control.

Too often Mr Saleh has played a game of patronage and played different groups against each other. Recent protests have done what decades of political instability could not: muster a united front against Mr Saleh that spans from the Houthi heartland in the north to the southern port city of Aden.

Mr Saleh's allies, both in the West and in the region, have chosen to back a strongman rather than risk a vacuum of power in this key strategic state. For all of the democratic aspirations of the protesters, this is still a concern. What constructive role Yemen's friends can play is another question.

The answer, in part, can be seen in Britain's plan to double its aid to £90 million (Dh532.8 million) for Yemen by 2015, focusing on health, education and water issues. That aid is contingent on substantive political and economic reforms.

Guns have now been turned on unarmed protesters. At least 17 have been killed over the past two weeks. For years besieged by opposition groups from across the country, Mr Saleh's own power base is beginning to disintegrate from under his feet. "The only thing that will collapse Yemen is if Saleh stays," said Hamid al Ahmar, a leader of the Hashid tribe.

Mr Saleh's opponents are beginning to speak with one voice. It may be too much to expect that this newfound solidarity could become a voice of national unity in the absence of Mr Saleh. What is sure is that, if he does depart office, Yemen will need the cooperation of many to ensure its stability.