April 24, 2011

The Day After Saleh’s “Resignation”

Forced to go from zero to 100 in an instant, sections of the global media are still catching their breath as they chase Yemen’s storm. These reports note President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s “about-face” to transfer power under an initiative from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and list the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties’ (JMP) grievances before speculating whether it will join Saleh in “accepting.” The guilty party includes the White House, which “applauded” Saleh and Yemen’s opposition before urging them to “swiftly implement” all terms of the agreement.

As if Saleh himself had agreed.

Yet other parts of the media, Western and international, have begun to catch up to Saleh’s real intentions as he maintains a defiant front. While limiting the reporting out of Yemen’s revolution was a relatively simple task - the Obama administration publicly ignored the country for as long as possible - Saturday’s blatant falsities were bound to be exposed in the immediate future. Saleh never personally accepted the GCC’s proposal, which calls for him to transfer power to vice president Abdu Rabuh Mansour Hadi within seven days and resign after 30.

Instead two of his officials tentatively accepted. They also made clear that the opposition must first accept - and return home - before Saleh approves the GCC's plan, an obvious scheme.

Meanwhile Yemen’s embattled president stood his ground in a fiery speech to future military officers in Sana’a, denouncing the Joint Meeting Parties’ (JMP) “coup” and refusing to submit. The mainstream media widely ignored this passionate declaration to remain in power, leading to back-tracking headlines on Sunday; the normally reputable Reuters blared, “Saleh defiant, day after agreeing to handover plan.” However ignoring another hard-line speech has proven exceedingly difficult. During a BBC interview on Sunday, Saleh conjured the usual bogeymen by warning Western governments, “The opposition is confused. At the site of the protest camps there is a mixture of Nazareths, socialists. Muslim brothers and al-Qaeda.”

"You call on me from the US and Europe to hand over power," he said. "Al-Qaeda are moving inside the camps and this is very dangerous. Why is the West not looking at this destructive work and its dangerous implications for the future?"

Although Saleh’s usual tricks utterly failed to convince Yemen’s popular opposition of trusting the GCC, his stall tactics continue to produce short-term results. Soon after Saleh’s officials welcomed the GCC’s plan, members of his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) hinted at intentionally accepting a hostile proposal in order to fracture and scapegoat the JMP. The popular opposition already opposes a time-table for Saleh’s resignation and his immunity, as negotiated by Washington and Riyadh. Ataif Alwazir, one organizer in Sana, said the street consensus stood heavily against the GCC’s proposal.

“It’s just another game,” she insisted. “Let the J.M.P. do what they have to do politically, negotiate, and the youth will do what they have to do and stay in the streets.”

More unacceptable terms were then slipped under the JMP, including a parliamentary veto of Saleh's resignation and an oath to be sworn before him. Theory is quickly becoming reality as Saleh condemns the JMP’s “confusion," while foreign news revolves around an increasingly divided opposition. It’s true that the JMP partially fell into Saleh’s trap; as the only party he's willing to negotiate with, the JMP has allowed him to stall and negotiate an unjust resolution in its name. On Sunday he declared, “from the first reply of the opposition to the initiative, they are refusing to participate in the government.”

This plot has been in the works for weeks. Tarek al-Shami, the GPC spokesman who "accepted" the GCC's proposal on Saturday, previously bashed the JMP for rejecting an undefined proposal: "This is proof that the opposition doesn't want dialogue or peaceful solutions, but want to come to power through chaos."

Beyond its own political aspirations, the JMP blocked out Saleh’s threats and cautiously accepted the GCC’s proposal to evade his ploy. Now the JMP is falling back into the masses for cover, and an escape appears possible despite being compromised by Saleh. Chairman and lead negotiator Yassin Said No’man, who has expressed suspicion throughout the GCC’s dialogue, warned of “serious” reservations on Sunday.

“The idea that President Saleh would step down in 30 days means nothing to us,” No’man said. “We would like the current government to continue in its current form until the president steps down – and we would like that to be as soon as possible. “Only after the president steps down can a genuine national dialogue take place.”

Saleh won’t enjoy nearly as much room to maneuver if Yemen’s political opposition can align with the popular revolution.

Yet Saleh’s propaganda attack on the West could also bear fruit in the near future. Keeping in mind that much of the GCC’s proposal is authored by Washington and Riyadh, and that the White House urged the opposition to accept a flawed resolution, Saleh’s fear tactics haven’t abandoned him entirely. Allowing him additional time to stall may have something to do with the fact that, according to U.S. estimates, over half of Saleh’s U.S.-trained counter-terror units have withdrawn from their posts to the capital. The security vacuum has enabled Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to gain ground in the southern Abyan governorate.

Stalling may seem contradictory, but Washington is determined to get these troops back on the front-lines (even though they were often misappropriated to begin with).

“The two-page draft political deal, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, doesn't mention defense or counterterrorism issues. People familiar with the document say that U.S. and Gulf Arabs expect that Mr. Saleh's son and nephews - who run the country's intelligence service, Republican Guard and elite Interior Ministry forces and are key counterterrorism liaisons for American officials - would remain in their positions until new elections.”

Here The Wall Street Journal offers one piece of evidence against a free and fair election in Yemen, which the GCC’s proposal calls for 60 days after Saleh’s resignation. Such an election would be held under the control of Saleh’s GPC, given a 50-40 majority in a transitional parliament, and within a charged environment that lacks security guarantees from the government. The election’s urgency is also driven by political expediency rather than a desire to legitimately resolve Yemen’s crisis. Western diplomats involved in Yemen’s political negotiations claim they want to see elections held before the August start of Ramadan.

"If we don't have elections before Ramadan, then we lose two more months," said a diplomat familiar with the negotiations. "That [political vacuum] is bad for us and good for al Qaeda."

The Yemeni people don’t seem to register.

Unfortunately the U.S.-GCC plan gets worse. Although the GCC has billed its offer as final, Washington is prepared to support a popular referendum on Saleh if he and the JMP deadlock again, according to Yemeni sources. These rumors have since been reinforced by Saba state media: “there is a consultation on the call for early elections in light of the GCC initiative.” Repeatedly referring to his supporters as the majority and the opposition as the minority,” Saleh’s own remarks should leave no doubt that he intends to use this argument to rig an election.

"Who shall I hand it over to?” Saleh asked on Sunday. “Those who are trying to make a coup? No. We will do it through ballot boxes and referendums. We'll invite international observers to monitor. Any coup is rejected because we are committed to the constitutional legitimacy and don't accept chaos."

Both of the GCC’s plans, as dictated by Washington and Riyadh, envision an “orderly transition” in Yemen rather than a conclusive outcome. Both options sadly display a high propensity for chaos. Either an unfavorable agreement is forced on the opposition, or else Saleh is given a free hand to manipulate his own referendum. Yemen’s revolutionaries immediately knew that Saleh hadn’t agreed to resign - and that he intends to fight to the end. Foreign news organizations would have known too had they paid more attention.

Too bad getting the story right isn’t the top priority during the Arab Spring.

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