Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has reportedly accepted the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative to transfer power and end the country’s three-month revolution. If only it were that easy.
With the U.S. media flooding the public sphere with wall-to-wall information and disinformation, a prolonged silence has been shattered as the lights flip on to catch Saleh's potential fall. Information is fluid, then, but nonetheless predictable. Following Saleh’s “willingness to step down unconditionally,” according to several members of his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), The New York Times inadvertently expressed the situation with precise clarity.
"The ruling party informed the foreign ministers of the GCC of their acceptance of the Gulf initiative in full," GPC spokesman Tariq Shami told Reuters, while spokesman Muhammad al-Basha added, “The General People’s Congress and its coalition partners have officially accepted the plan without condition.”
The NYT opened its report, “Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed on Saturday to leave power after 32 years of autocratic rule, according to a top Yemeni official, but only if the opposition agrees to a list of conditions...”
Saleh’s worst case scenario - essentially the best option for America and Saudi Arabia - still remains unfavorable to Yemen’s general opposition. As the GCC-U.S. plan currently stands, Saleh must step down within 30 days and transfer power to a preferred choice, listed as Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi. Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman for the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), told Al Jazeera, “The vice-president will take over for a certain period and then we will see what happens.” This government will theoretically operate under a “national unity” government until elections can be held in two months.
The agreement also stipulates immunity for Saleh and his family, and calls for an immediate end to nation-wide protests.
These generous terms should minimize any surprise that Saleh would accept such an agreement, which exchanges one waiting period for another. The GCC’s offer still allows him room to maneuver in the short-term, within the next week and month. An election held within three months and under the GPC’s control will also provide ample opportunity to corrupt the vote. If these stall tactics fail to abort the revolution, he can fall back on his immunity and escape the fate of Hosni Mubarak.
His remaining supporters and the opposition would then battle for control of Yemen’s future government. Were the GPC to emerge as the dominate party again, Saleh could find himself back in the country after a cool-down period.
Despite its many flaws, GCC’s proposal appears to offer Yemen’s opposition the best chance to remove Saleh from the presidency. Force is the only alternative at this point. However the GCC has offered a worst case scenario with a high risk of collapsing. That the JMP doesn’t speak for the wider uprising must be factored in at all times. Although the coalition has momentarily accepted the proposal, it also faces an overriding dilemma stemming from its lack of popular legitimacy. Thus Saleh could be forcing an untenable agreement upon the opposition to force a rejection, at which point he could blame them and further divide the opposition against the popular revolution.
The Los Angeles Times just quoted a government official briefed on the GCC talks as saying: "It was argued that, given the opposition's guaranteed rejection of the document in its current form, the government would appear more conciliatory in front of the international community by signing off on the plan."
Under pressure to deliver a sellable agreement to the public, the JMP is playing right into this strategy by refusing an integral part of Saleh’s conditions. While JMP chairman Yaseen No’man welcomed the transition of power, both he and Qahtan voiced their opposition to a national unity government led by the GPC. Qahtan explained, “We cannot accept taking part in a unity government with President Saleh still as its head. We want the president to quit immediately... The opposition cannot possibly agree with this scheme. We enter into a new government only after the president resigns."
Otherwise, "We would have to swear an oath to Saleh, who has already lost his legitimacy.”
The JMP also expressed suspicion over a clause that allows the GPC, through its control of parliament, to veto Saleh’s resignation. Coupled with rumors that the GPC will keep Saleh on as “honorary” president for five months, and not even the JMP is willing to accept a delayed resignation. Beyond the popular objection to Saleh’s immunity, opposition members say the fate of the Republican Guard and Central Security remains ambiguous as well. The two units, commanded by Saleh's son and nephew and trained by U.S. Special Forces, are considered the most flagrant offenders during Yemen's revolution.
Topping these reservations, Shami said the opposition must agree to a deal that stipulates the protests' end before Saleh accepts.
The Obama administration has consistently ignored Saleh's defiance while encouraging a resolution under the guise of the GCC. Unable to remain quiet any longer, the White House is now using this opportunity to push an explosive “agreement” on Yemen's opposition. The State Department’s Mark Toner, having remained silent all week, was the first to comment in remarks the NYT described as “somewhat cautious.” Perhaps it read a different statement.
“We’ve seen the press reports regarding President Saleh’s acceptance of the GCC proposal,” Toner said in a press release. “As we’ve said, we welcome the recent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative to address the challenging political situation in Yemen. The participation of all sides in this dialogue is urgently needed to reach a solution supported by the Yemeni people. President Saleh has publicly expressed his willingness to engage in a peaceful transfer of power; the timing and form of this transition should be identified through dialogue and begin immediately.”
Such a highly contradictory statement isn’t surprising given the White House’s incoherent response to Yemen. Toner has defended Saleh with the same line before, but never have the embattled president's actions “expressed a willingness to engage in a peaceful transfer of power." Toner goes on to urge “genuine participation by all sides including the youth,” despite the fact that Yemen’s popular opposition has been intentionally locked out of negotiations. Odder still, he urges the government to address protesters’ calls to “quickly bring all perpetrators of violence to justice,” seemingly oblivious to Saleh’s immunity. Toner then defends the Yemeni people’s right to demonstrate peacefully, even though the U.S.-GCC proposal calls for an end to demonstrations before Saleh agrees to resign.
"We agreed that the General People's Congress, the governing party, forms the national unity government from the government, the opposition and other political forces on condition the protests continue on the streets," Qahtan explained amid widespread discontent over the demand.
Finally, in concluding “it is ultimately for the people of Yemen to decide how their country is governed,” Toner completely ignores the reality that Washington and Riyadh co-authored the GCC’s initiative with Saleh’s GPC. A Yemeni official, who asked not to be named, even admitted that the White House wanted the Saudis to play a more prominent role in deliberations, as the agreement appears too connected to Washington. Were Yemen’s future “ultimately for the people to decide,” the opposition’s resolution wouldn’t have been dictated by external forces.
Saleh’s government would have negotiated directly with representatives of Yemen’s youth and popular movement, instead of freezing them out and ordering them to stop protesting.
It remains to be seen whether Saleh will actually accept the GCC’s proposal, but all available evidence points to the negative. Somewhat telling, Saba state media hasn’t announced a definitive response after previously welcoming the GCC’s dialogue. It did, however, carry Saleh’s latest speech to military personnel, which sounds like a victory address more than a resignation. Repeatedly condemning the JMP for violating “the constitution and law, rejecting elections and the people’s choice,” Saleh continued to label the group’s cooperation with the GCC as “sabotage” and a “coup.” He also blamed the JMP for his own government's corruption.
“The so-called revolution of youth and change is hatred and sabotage and aims to establish the culture of hatred,” Saleh declared. “If you follow their ramblings and political rhetoric on TV channels, you would find that they do not flow smoothly, but hostile towards the people. If they are hostile towards the people when they have still not assumed power, how would they be when they assume power?”
One GPC member claimed that the GCC presented only a framework for a political solution, not a specific plan. “The devil is in the details,” he cautioned, to be hammered out in the month before Saleh “resigns.” This arrangement allows Saleh to continue negotiating his terms in addition to setting the government for a potential departure. Nor does any guarantee exist that he will resign at the end of 30 days. To most of Yemen’s popular opposition, the real devil doesn't lie in the details but in Saleh.
One youth organizer in Sana’a remarked in disgust, “the GCC plan is a joke.”
So where does the White House truly stand? According to a second statement released by press secretary Jay Carney, "We applaud the announcements by the Yemeni Government and the opposition that they have accepted the GCC-brokered agreement to resolve the political crisis in a peaceful and orderly manner... We encourage all parties to move swiftly to implement the terms of the agreement so that the Yemeni people can soon realize the security, unity and prosperity that they have so courageously sought and so richly deserve.”
Sounds like Saleh and Obama administration are still reading from the same script, one that wishes to see an anticlimactic end to Yemen's revolution.