March 24, 2011

Yemen: Relative Calm Before Friday’s Storm

Another ordinary day in revolutionary Yemen. Rage buzzes in the streets and mountains, government officials discuss "security," back-channel talks hint at a political resolution, propaganda mixes with denial, anxiety and silence fill Washington’s air. The same chaos that makes a revolution unpredictable also makes it easier to predict.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who defected after last Friday’s massacre in Change Square, reached a tentative agreement to end the nation’s crisis. Both men are willing to resign but agree that they can't until the details of a transitional council have been established, according to government sources.

They hope to release a detailed plan by Saturday, after Friday’s scheduled march on the presidential palace.

Having held fast to its position that the opposition must negotiate with Saleh, the White House naturally greeted the development with approval (State Department went silent today). Defense Secretary Robert Gates sparked widespread concerns on Wednesday after admitting the White House “doesn’t have a plan in Yemen,” but this strategic error has been obvious since the revolution's beginning.

When questioned on Yemen, Press Secretary Jay Carney responded, “I think that we are focused on offering our judgment that in Yemen, as in other countries, force is not the appropriate response to the unrest, and we call on all sides to refrain from violence and we call on all sides to engage in a political dialogue, as President Saleh has indicated he wants to do. So we think that’s a positive thing, and we’re not going to prejudge the outcome of that dialogue.”

Carney also claimed that U.S. policy in Yemen doesn't hinge on one individual.

U.S. officials are clinging to “dialogue” like a literal life-line in rough seas. Rarely commenting on the crisis through high-level officials, "dialogue" is repeated as proof of America’s support for Yemen’s democratic movement. So is condemnation of violence against protesters, which Washington is always sure to warn both sides against. This delegitimization tactic has been combined with demands for "investigations," as if Saleh isn't responsible.

That support for Saleh's "dialogue" breaks down to open support for a despotic ruler - its own prejudice - also goes unmentioned.

“With respect to Yemen,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters yesterday, “we’re not going to make predictions about what will happen in Yemen other than to say that the people of Yemen have the same rights as people anywhere, and we support dialogue as a path to a peaceful solution to Yemen’s current political situation that includes genuine participation by all sides. And we are certainly making our views known on a regular and consistent basis both publicly and privately.”

It became immediately apparent after Saleh and al-Ahmar’s meeting that, as in the case of previous “offers,” Yemen’s opposition would reject their latest plan. Despite his shady history General al-Ahmar has tilted the scales further against Saleh, but he’s far from the opposition's representative for this same reason. As chief of Yemen’s military, al-Ahmar is considered an enemy of the Houthis for aiding in their suppression (Houthi statements have recently welcomed al-Ahmar’s support, likely as a political maneuver).

And al-Ahmar is too intimate with Saleh to negotiate on the opposition’s behalf; Saleh is clearly using al-Ahmar to oversee the transition. But he’s only a pawn in the opposition's game now, not the king.

Yassin Noman, head of Yemen's opposition coalition, dismissed Saleh's offer as "empty words,” while opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabry summed up their position as, "No dialogue and no initiatives for this dead regime.. This talk is aimed at delaying the announcement of the death of the regime. The opposition does not need to respond.”

Around 10,000 people did gather on Thursday morning, chanting slogans such as "Go, go, you coward; you are an American agent." Much of the opposition is busy formulating a transitional structure that will accommodate its many facets.

One needn’t rehash a month of government violence and insincere dialogue to understand the opposition’s level of distrust. Only yesterday Saleh orchestrated what’s left of his parliament to confirm state of emergency laws, an order he put into motion after last Friday’s bloodshed. A suspended constitution now allows security forces to arrest and detain anyone, although a constitution hasn’t stopped them from doing so already. Opposition leaders decried the move.

Furthermore, after reports surfaced of a political agreement, Yemeni state media released an account of Thursday’s meetings between Saleh and his remaining army commanders. According to Saba News Agency, “President Saleh blamed the Joint Meeting Parties, the opposition coalition, for the current political crisis and its impacts on the national security, unity and democracy practice... The committee discussed the suffering of the people amid lawbreaking and illegal acts committed by the Joint Meeting Parties, the opposition, and the Houthi Group.”

He's actually broadcasting this message to Yemenis and U.S. officials alike.

Saleh then commended army commanders for affirming their vow to protect the country’s “unity” and face “all projects aimed at destroying Yemen and harming its “security, social peace, democracy, and constitutional legitimacy.” He also offered amnesty to defecting troops, terming their defections as “foolish acts” perpetuated by foreign media. Blaming the media has become one of Saleh’s go-to moves during his final days.

It’s possible that no agreement exists with al-Ahmar in the first place. After all, why would Saleh offer to resign at any point before 2013 if Yemen’s crisis is a fabrication of the foreign media? Obviously some of his comments are pure propaganda, but he also appears to genuinely believe in his delusions. Either way Yemen’s opposition has no reason to trust this man, whether looking back over 20 years, two years, two weeks, or today. Saleh’s days are numbered by his own admission.

What happens next will unfold with incredible complexity and unavoidable chaos, but the outcome has been decided whether Washington likes it or not.

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