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Brinkmanship

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Since the protests began in Yemen earlier this year, writing the top line of news stories has become a daily wrestle with the limited possibilities offered by the metaphor of the ‘brink’. The country has stepped closer to the brink, edged towards it, and stood at it. It has yet to go over it. But tensions are running high. Money changers are running out of dollars. Every day, more serious weaponry is visible on the streets.

Last month, the most powerful military commander in the country, Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, offered his support to the protest movement and stationed his troops around their encampment at Sanaa University: a serious confrontation with the republican guard policing the routes to the presidential palace a few miles away seemed imminent. The republican guard is commanded by the president’s son, who, like other family members in senior positions in the security forces, has everything to lose from the ‘peaceful transition’ currently being urged by Washington. Every day, rumours go around that the protesters are planning a march on the palace, or that the republican guard have attacked General Mohsen’s troops, and people have to decide whether it is safe to go to work or let their children go to school.

The street and the regime are engaged in a game of bluff; the protesters know that if they march on the palace it will provoke a bloodbath, Saleh knows they know this, and seems to be waiting them out. As the rial sinks and the central government cedes control of more parts of the country, it becomes more likely that Yemen’s neighbours, concerned that the instability will spread, will try to force some kind of settlement. An agreement between the president’s allies and opposition parties on the eventual transfer of power is supposed to be signed next week in Riyadh, but the protest movement doesn’t support it. To keep up the pressure, both sides push at the boundaries of their positions: every day, protesters have been marching a little further away from their encampment, while security forces have staged periodic crackdowns.

No one is sure exactly how long this situation can go on for, or how we will be able to tell if the country does step over the brink. ‘When the tanks are on the streets, that’s when its time to go,’ one security analyst said a month or so ago. That moment appears to have come and gone.

The binary oppositions of integrity/collapse, on the brink/in the abyss, may not be a useful way of looking at Yemen. It has been in a state of bloody turmoil for most of its recent history. The true cost of its dysfunctional politics can be seen not in the security situation, but in the human development statistics. For all the drama of the military stand-off in the capital, there’s a case to be made that a country with 40 per cent unemployment, and where hundreds of children die every year from malnutrition, has already collapsed.

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