April 28, 2011

Around Yemen’s Ring of Fire

On Thursday countless protesters took to Yemen’s streets denouncing the latest outburst of violence and political negotiations in Saudi Arabia. Today unfolded in relative peace, but a doctor at a Sana’a hospital described Wednesday's crackdown to the Associated Press: "Most of the injuries were lethal, most of them were with live ammunition and knives and stones; 780 cases arrived, 125 were with live bullets. Thirteen were martyrs.”

The following is a cross-spectrum reaction to Wednesday's attacks and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) proposal between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP):

JMP closing door, leaves ajar

In a statement released Wednesday night, the JMP stopped short of vetoing the U.S.-GCC’s weekend signing ceremony in Riyadh. The coalition did, however, threaten to pull out if government-sponsored violence refuses to abate, as the pro-democracy movement has escalated its civil disobedience in response to the GCC. The JMP labeled Wednesday’s attacks as a "savage massacre" that “constituted a crime against humanity by Saleh and members of his family.”

Meanwhile General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the 1st Armored Division and a key defector of Saleh’s regime, called on "all honest people" to rise up against the regime. Aligning himself with the street demonstrations against the GCC, al-Ahmar explained, "By this, President Saleh has been seeking to drag the military and security forces into full-armed confrontation in a bid to abort the initiative brokered recently by the foreign ministers of the GCC.”

Although realizing it continues to bleed credibility in the streets, the JMP has declined to reject the GCC’s plan in fear that Saleh will flip the situation on their heads. This same reason may explain why the JMP has steadfastly ignored Saleh’s incessant threats against the coalition. But the JMP must set a limit to the level of blame it’s willing to take, a decision that appears to remain unresolved. Surely the JMP wants Saleh to blink first - and he almost has - but will this reward actually follow the risk?

Saleh strikes back... again

No sooner had the smoke cleared from Wednesday’s violence did Saleh point his rhetorical gun at the JMP. The embattled president began his day by telling Russia Today, "We have accepted this initiative in order to avoid bloodshed and return the Yemeni political and economic situation to normal... I will stay the political head of the General People Congress (GPC).”

He then blamed the JMP for Wednesday’s attack while meeting “a number of women leaders from the Youth Movement for Correcting Path.” Saba state media reported that, “women leaders condemned the blatant assaults carried out by elements of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) on Wednesday on youth protesters in Al Thawrah city.”

Separately, the GPC released a statement claiming, "The JMP's leaders aim to make more demonstrators killed in deadly clashes through committing such violent acts and chaos in a bid to fail the GCC plan that proposed to solve the political standoff in Yemen.”

Thus the JMP finds itself blamed for Wednesday’s events and accused of derailing the GCC’s plan, when the opposite is closer to the truth. In connection with these developments, Saleh told Russia Today that he “reserves the right of refusing to sign the GCC plan if Qatari representatives attend the signing ceremony.” As the host of Al Jazeera, one of Saleh’s favorite scapegoats, Qatar provides an excuse to reject the GCC’s initiative at any time. This scheme predates the GPC’s initial decision to accept the GCC’s accord, rightfully believing it would isolate the JMP from the streets and thereby nullify itself.

"We're going to show the world who Ali Abdullah Saleh really is," said Salah al-Sharify, a youth organizer who has been injured on multiple occasions. "And if the JMP wants to join Saleh and become part of his government, these deaths will be on their hands too."

The youth have already succeeded in exposing Saleh’s tyranny, judging by his words and actions. Unfortunately the world doesn’t seem to care.

UN bends in the wind

Off in New York City, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has likely been advised that continual meetings on Syria would appear more legitimate if Yemen isn’t ignored. For what it’s worth Ki-Moon released a statement that, while still pulling up short on the Yemeni people’s side, “emphasizes that broadly inclusive political dialogue and mutual understanding are critically important for overcoming the current crisis and preserving the country’s unity and integrity.”

Ki-Moon has a habit of back-tracking under pressure from global powers, and the UN is unlikely to provide any significant assistance in Yemen. At least his warning attempts to mirror reality though. The U.S. remains lost in its own world - or Saleh’s world.

U.S. digs in behind Saleh

The Obama administration’s response to Wednesday was predictably wild: no White House or State Department briefings and no special statements. Following Saleh’s lead again, the US Embassy in Sana’a released a backwards statement urging the adopting of a divisive agreement. According to the release, “It is especially disturbing that the violence took place on the eve of signing an historic agreement between the Government and the Joint Meeting Parties that will achieve through peaceful, democratic, and Constitutional means a transition of authority leading to new Presidential elections in July 2011.”

“The Embassy urges Yemeni citizens to demonstrate their commitment to this peaceful transition by avoiding all provocative demonstrations, marches, and speeches in the coming days and to welcome this opportunity to lay the foundation of a strong, peaceful, prosperous Yemen for the future. We also urge government security forces to refrain from using violence against demonstrators.”

Such a statement is clearly crafted by Washington spin doctors, who laid on thick propaganda by hailing a “historic agreement.” The U.S.-Saudi authored proposal appears destined for the violent kind of history, not the peaceful kind. Protesters were demonstrating against the GCC’s initiative, demonstrating because they haven’t been included in political process. They also claim that snipers had been deployed along their routes. Although the JMP reportedly managed to eliminate Saleh and Washington’s demand that the protests end after the GCC’s signing, limiting their demonstrations is the next available option.

The Embassy basically warned protesters to stay away from the Saudi Embassy.

Elsewhere Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counter-terrorism, sounded Yemen’s terror alarm during a conference call on April 27th. Benjamin warned that Yemen’s instability has “offered opportunities” to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), then goes on to claim “we’ve adopted a comprehensive and sustained approach taking into account political, cultural, socio-economic, and security factors.”

Although Saleh is largely responsible for his own fall, Yemen’s revolution may not have erupted like it did if Benjamin’s statements were accurate. The reality is that U.S. strategy in Yemen compromised its political and economic spheres in favor of military domination, hastening Saleh's collapse. Reaching out to Yemen’s future government is wise - if the U.S. and Saudis weren’t pushing for “Saleh-lite” over a pure revolution. Benjamin repeats a common phrase that U.S. policy “does not rely solely on one individual,” when Washington obviously did.

So important is Yemen that, in lieu of daily briefings, the director of policy planning at the State Department addressed reporters in a lengthy debate on the Middle East. Busy defending U.S. policy in Syria and Libya, Jake Sullivan never gets around to Yemen as reporters continue to lump its revolution with Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. One reporter asks, “are you at all concerned that unelected leaders in the region would look at the U.S. response to, say, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, compare that to the U.S. response to Syria, and conclude that a friendship with the United States is perilous in the event of a democratic uprising?”

Except U.S. friendship tried to keep Mubarak’s regime from sinking and has kept Saleh afloat.

This line of thinking seems to emanate from Saudi Arabia, which points out the fate of U.S. “allies” to undermine regional regime change. Washington isn’t considering punishment for Saleh despite the impression that the White House is forcing him out. Instead, Saleh has been rewarded for bad behavior and continues to be after Wednesday's bloodshed.

Long road to the endgame

Whether or not Saleh and the JMP sign the GCC’s agreement over the weekend, Yemen’s revolution possesses enough fuel to go the distance. Either the protesters overcome the GCC's ceremony and continue their uprising, or they scrap the agreement through demonstrations and push for a completely new deal. Both courses of action would extend Yemen’s crisis beyond any time-frame Washington and Riyadh are willing to stomach; they want the revolution to end as soon as possible.

Two quotes can sum up today’s events. In Sana’a, one young protester named Khaled told TIME’s Erik Stier, "Where is President Obama now? He is obsessed with al-Qaeda but why does he trust the lies that our president tells him and not the people?”

In a BBC report asking, "Has US policy catalyzed Yemen unrest?" Charles Schmitz of Towson University concludes, "I think the reason Washington is not clear on what they are doing, is because they don't know what they are doing.”

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