February 1, 2011

Saleh Sinking, U.S. Raises Yemen Fear Factor with Wall Street Threat

For all of the negative qualities plaguing the second revolutionary domino, there is a flip side to “going second.” Much like the waning moments in a sports game - college football playoff, tie score at top of the ninth, or down by 1 with the basketball - getting the ball second lets the team know what it needs to win.

Ali Abdullah Saleh is trying to deduce what it takes to win.

The Yemeni president rules over a country deemed more of a terror threat than Egypt, yet the magnitude of Cairo’s revolution can be measured in overwhelming al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemen remains a semi-distant second to Egypt’s events, and while government officials and the international media try to up Sana’a’s pace, its own revolution lacks the inherent wattage of Cairo. Needing a unified opposition group like the Muslim Brotherhood to provide stability during a transition, the Yemeni opposition (urban youth and unemployed, rural dissidents, Houthis, Southern Movement) will take longer to crystalize into Egypt’s “unified front.”

Unlike Mubarak, Yemen’s opposition is looking over AQAP and questioning whether it wants Saleh to go right now, or if weakening him would be more prudent.

Applying Egypt as cover and an example, Saleh has tried to walk in the opposite direction as Hosni Mubarak. After initially greeting protesters with force and arrests, including several activists who were later released, Yemen’s security forces have tried to keep their force level to a minimum. Clashes are inevitable, but looking the other way, the situation would be far uglier if Saleh green-lit a crackdown.

Not that this outcome is dead. Were Yemeni protesters to up their wager by universally demanding his exit, violent suppression must be assumed as a possibility.

Given that Yemen’s movement is infused with unemployed students - an estimated 50% - Saleh has absolved students from the remaining tuition fees at state universities in the academic year (2010-2011), and introduced an employment program for graduate students. He’s even promised to expand the “financial” security network for the unemployed.

Realizing that these measures may not be sufficient, Saleh has finally summoned parliament to announce his intention not to seek re-election in 2013. Ali Amrani, a senior official in the ruling General People Congress (GPC), told reporters, "Saleh feels that Yemen needs new faces, and will not run in the next elections. His initiative will give realistic solutions to ensure that Yemen does not become the next Tunisia or Egypt."

Of course, only a month ago Saleh instructed the GPC to begin dissolving presidential term limits, and replaced the electoral commission with government judges instead of party delegates.

As in Egypt
, the opposition isn’t about to be moved without concrete proposals, not when Saleh is backtracking from such a fresh power-grab. He’s trying - to hold onto power. Clearly Saleh’s reaction to Yemen’s protests don’t account for his actual position, and his emergency measures suffer from critical holes. Yemen’s present economy, oil-based and drying up, isn’t capable of funding new social initiatives for long. Buying off students for the rest of the year achieves nothing in the absence of full-fledged political reform; some have already rejected his offer. And creating jobs, a big enough challenge in America, takes time that Saleh doesn’t have.

The Wall Street Journal reports, “Opposition leaders dismissed the emergency meeting as too little-too late, and opposition parliamentary members said they'd boycott the session. Opposition leaders have threatened to go to the streets this Thursday in a protest they say will be the biggest of its kind against the Saleh regime.”

Like many Egyptians who can only remember Mubarak, a majority of Yemenis believe that Saleh, after ruling as President for 32 years, is grooming his administration for his sons and nephews. And if forced, the opposition won’t let the fear of AQAP stop them from joining the Middle East’s revolution.

Yet unlike Egypt, where America has lost every argument against the Muslim Brotherhood, Saleh can still play the fear card on the White House. And that means Washington can still play the fear card in Yemen. Today, more than two weeks after AQAP’s January Inspire came out, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and the NYPD briefed Wall Street executives on threats from the issue.

"We suggest that the following should be targeted: Government owned property, banks, global corporations [and] wealth belonging to disbelievers with known animosity towards Muslims," cleric Anwar al-Awlaki had advised.

Only now has this news surfaced - what a strange coincidence. Perhaps the Washington establishment believes it can justify its support of Saleh through more fear, but this would be a grave error.

Coincidences are unlikely to occur at a time when cause and effect have come to dominate. Reflecting on the previous bombs AQAP sent through FedEx, and its declaration to continue trying, the FBI and NYPD briefed Goldman Sachs, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays, and other institutions to guard their mail rooms. However, officials made clear that the threats “are not specific” and there is "no indication of a targeted assassination plot" against any Wall Street executive.”

So they’ve just picked today, with Saleh struggling to tread water and Yemen’s opposition marshaling its forces, to brief Wall Street on AQAP’s threat. A suspicious package indeed.


  1. You are really one of the best Yemen analysts and I always enjoy your posts. The Southerners and Houthis haven't joined in the popular uprising in Sana'a. The southerners predictably are having a separate "day of rage" on Feb 11, to continue their demands for the dissolution of unity and the Houthis remain north, consolidating their hold in three governorates. It is difficult to imagine a regime more hospitable and supportive of Hamas and Hezbollah than Saleh's. Regarding AQAP, they declared war on the Houthis and are quite content with Saleh's weak if not insincere efforts at counter-terror. A domestic terror attack, like the one preceding the 2006 presidential election, would change the dynamic considerably. Its possible if not likely that the security forces have engaged in or contracted out attacks in the past. And if things heat up substantially for the regime, this is one of its available cards.

  2. And thank you for sharing your intel. The evolution of separate strains of anti-Saleh protests is critical viewing - so is watching for the point when/if they fuse together. Division and unity will play a big factor in the final outcome of Yemen's protests.

    As for AQAP, the group is gaining strength and Yemeni security forces have been hit hard lately. While AQAP is a well-trained group, many reports allege as you do that Saleh has reason to keep it alive. I would think AQAP will go on targeting military targets rather than a spectacular attack on civilians.

    Except the Houthis, of course. AQAP seems to believe it can successfully slander the tribe and Saleh together.