May 29, 2014 by Darius
I had a funny conversation today. I was talking with someone about how Yemen is having problems with its post-dictator transition. That’s nothing special, but it was amusing to find out several minutes into the conversation that while I was talking about Yemen, the other person was talking about Libya. Yet we sustained the conversation just fine. It wasn’t until I mentioned qat – all conversations about Yemen eventually seem to include qat – that we realized we were talking about two different countries. The experience underscored how many similarities there are between the challenges facing Libya and Yemen today.
Both Yemen and, to a lesser extent, Libya are the less-talked-about Arab Spring countries. In both places, a strongman fell who had ruled for decades. In both places, a host of problems kept in the bottle by the strongman came to front and center for the succession government. In both places, geography has contributed to historic cultural divisions and stymied central control.
The main problem facing the governments of both Libya and Yemen is the existence of large armed groups outside of government control. In Libya, these are the militias, many of which have a regional or tribal affiliation. The government has tried and failed to control them – and tried and thus far failed to bring them into the government fold. Fighting has frequently broken out between rival militias, sometimes involving the government. In Yemen, the parallel to the militias are powerful tribal confederations. These tribesmen are armed to the teeth (Yemen has the second-highest number of guns per capita in the world, behind the US) and operate outside the government’s authority. Traditionally, governments in Yemen have survived by bribing several prominent federations and playing the rest against one another. Since the fall of President Saleh, that system has broken down.
Another similarity between Libya and Yemen is the existence of devolutionary and even secessionist movements. In Libya, groups are calling for the independence of the eastern half of the country, known as Cyrenaica. Yemen boasts multiple secessionist groups. Many southerners seek a return to a divided Yemen. (South Yemen was a country until it reunited with North Yemen in 1990; the two halves fought a civil war in 1994 but ultimately stayed together.) Additionally, in Yemen’s north, the Houthi movement seeks autonomy from the central government.
Both Libya and Yemen have problems with Islamic extremism. In Libya, the Ansar al-Sharia group has engaged in violence over the last few years and has gotten into fights with other militias. In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based there, was for a time the most powerful regional affiliate of al-Qaeda in the world.
Finally, one thing that Libya and Yemen also share is the fact that the central government lacks real power to remedy the situation. Real power lies in the hands of the militias (Libya) and the tribes (Yemen), and those militias and tribes are not going to cede their power to the central government any time soon because they believe themselves to be protecting their families and interests in a way the central government cannot or will not. In both cases the central government’s inability to exert its will means that it can do little more than try to lead a balky confederation from crisis to crisis. Neither country has a quick fix in sight.
You can see why we were able to sustain our discussion about two different countries for so long before discovering our conversational mismatch. 🙂