April 30, 2011

Saleh Pulls Another Saleh

Throughout the week Ali Abdullah Saleh and his officials insisted that they “unconditionally” accepted a power transfer brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Although Yemen's president of 32 years never agreed himself, he told Russia Today on the eve before the signing ceremony that the initiative “must be carried out in whole.” The proposal, which calls for Saleh’s resignation after 30 days and presidential elections after 90 days, was to be signed on Saturday by Saleh, then flown from Sana’a to Riyadh. Here, Yemen’s Joint Oppositional Parties (JMP) would finalize an agreement that, in the document’s words, “will lead to the preservation of Yemeni unity, security, and stability.”

Yet JMP officials were far from surprised when Saleh aborted at the last moment. Spokesman Mohammad Qahtan announced shortly after the news broke, "President Saleh refused to sign the GCC proposal, and this is what we expected all along.” As did thousand upon thousands of protesters demonstrating against Saleh’s immunity and the GCC’s “interference.”

To think they still have something in common.

The only people who might be surprised by Saleh’s latest stalling tactic are Abdullatif Al-Zayani, GCC secretary-general, media personnel with a surface understanding of Yemen’s revolution, and possibly U.S. officials who were supposed to witness his signature in Sana’a. The Saudis seem to have expected a trap by setting their own, announcing through the Saudi Press Agency, "President Saleh welcomed the GCC initiative to establish peace and stability in Yemen and protect its territorial integrity.” The Obama administration doesn’t appear too concerned that Saleh ruined the GCC’s “historic agreement” either.

But Al-Zayani had good reason to appear “visibly angry” when leaving Sana'a. Although the secretary-general got in a few hours with Saleh, he was eventually passed off to “high-level leaders” of the president’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). Leaving without Saleh’s signature doesn’t begin to express Al-Zayani’s eventual realization that Saleh intended to play him the entire time.

As with his orchestrated suppression in the streets, Yemen’s embattled president has premeditated his rejection of the GCC’s proposal at every turn. Combined with his personal skill of pitting Yemen’s opposition and tribes against each other, Saleh immediately saw his escape hatch widen once U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed in Riyadh. Although Gates’s trip was billed as a strategic meeting on regional unrest and Iran in particular, the GCC soon entered Yemen’s revolution under the authority of Riyadh and Washington. Having crossed their wires in Egypt, the two powers were determined not to make the same mistake in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Saleh didn’t need much imagination to believe he could dodge anything the GCC had to offer.

As GCC, U.S. and E.U. officials spent the next two weeks authoring the GCC’s final proposal, Saleh and the GPC spent their own time formulating a list of reasons to reject the GCC’s initiative. After GPC spokesman Tariq Al-Shami “accepted” the plan last weekend and sparked international speculation that Saleh would resign, other GPC officials voiced their approval at a flawed document - including Al-Shami. By forcing the JMP to sign an agreement widely condemned by the revolution, Saleh and the GPC not only hoped but expected to scapegoat the coalition for its collapse.

Locked in a game of chicken, the JMP has held strong while issuing a number of qualifiers to account for escalating violence against protesters. Not wanting to blink first, Saleh reached deeper into his bag of tricks and began to play his many political schemes. First accusing Qatar, home of Al Jazeera, of interfering with Yemen’s internal affairs, Saleh warned that he wouldn’t sign the document in the presence of its representatives. Saleh also deployed a calculated ambush on Wednesday, killing over a dozen protesters and wounding hundreds more. Again the JMP voiced its opposition to the GCC’s proposal but failed to break away completely, as Saleh intended.

Again Saleh reflected the blame in the JMP's direction. According to Saba state media, “In respect to opposition's accusation of repressing the protests by using extreme force, he said this is not correct and accused the JMP of attacking camps of supporters of GPC. The riots they created resulted in killing five and injuring 300. The security had not directions from the authority.”

No surprise that gaps have begun to tear in Saleh’s jumbled logic.

He did, however, hint at his latest attempt to circumvent logic on Thursday and Friday, when the GPC released a statement claiming that Saleh would sign the GCC’s proposal only as GPC chairman. Fulfilling this tactic on Saturday, Al-Shami said the party appointed Abdul Karim Al-Ariani, Saleh's political adviser, to sign with the JMP in Riyadh. One anonymous official argued, "It would be illegal if Saleh signs this agreement first,” while another member, Ahmed al-Soufi, responded to questions of Saleh’s participation by claiming he is “not a party” to the conflict.

Refusing to fall for such an obvious ploy, Qahtan said that Saleh himself must sign, whether in Sana’a or Riyadh.

Sultan al-Atwani, another JMP official, similarly told Reuters, "The authority has thwarted the deal. The Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council told us that Saleh refused to sign in his role as president. He said he wanted to sign as head of the ruling party, and this is a violation of the text of the Gulf initiative.”

Thus the situation remains largely unchanged from previous weeks, if one factors in the unrealistic nature pervading the GCC’s initiative. Stalling remains Saleh’s primary objective; he doesn’t even want to chance a proposal that favors the continuation of his GPC. Another round of backtracking has already unfolded as well. According to the aforementioned anonymous official, Saleh told Al-Zayani that he would seal the document after the GPC and JMP signed in Riyadh.

This pinball strategy could go back and forth for weeks, which is likely the objective of this particular tactic. One week may be squeezed out of the agreement already. Stall again and another week may pass. Saleh believes that he can stall for months, long enough to exhaust the three-month old revolution - except few revolutions give up so quickly. Saleh seems to be running on a conventional time-table rather than the protracted revolutionary cycle, something that will doom him in the end.

Yet there’s no denying the temporary effectiveness of Saleh’s crude but numerically superior tactics. While one strategy would fail to contain the revolution, Saleh has employed violence, bashed the JMP for said violence, exploited minimal U.S. condemnation (and, at times, outright support), and preyed on Yemenis’ fears of civil war. As this fear slowly diminishes in the face of increasing unity, Saleh has relied on political roadblocks to grind the GCC’s power transfer to a crawl.

All of these tactics have combined to produce the present gridlock.

Where, then, does that leave the U.S. officials who were supposed to witness Saleh sign the GCC’s accord? A lack of response to both today’s events and reoccurring violence doesn’t necessarily mean that Washington wishes to see the GCC’s plan delayed. Contrary to Saleh’s position, the Obama administration wants to sign off and move past the uprising as fast as possible. Unlike Saleh, who has consistently downplayed the initiative, the White House has devoted its energy to hyping it as Yemen's only alternative to civil war. It meant every word when, shortly after Saleh allegedly accepted the GCC’s proposal, it urged the opposition to "swiftly implement the terms of the agreement."

Together with Riyadh, Washington believed it had pulled off its scheme to extract Saleh and deflate Yemen’s revolution. They had crafted a favorable package for Saleh that ensures his party’s continuation and buries the U.S. connection to human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia could continue interfering in northern Yemen without reprisal from a democratic government. Now Saleh is praising Russia for blocking any activity in the UN Security Council, while criticizing “some Western countries” for asking who will take over power.

But, “The opposition will not take over power as the GPC has the majority. They refuse presidential and parliamentary elections because they know they do not have majority.”

Now America stands to fall even further in the eyes of Yemenis after Saleh rejected a U.S.-authored proposal.

Ali Al-Emad, a member of the youth council in Sana’a, denounced the U.S. Embassy's announcement to avoid “provocative marches.” Explaining that, “the announcement aimed to deprive us some of our rights and it was really seen as an unacceptable interference in the Yemeni affairs,” Al-Emad wondered why the White House singled out the protest movement rather than Saleh.

Washington does understand that violence could derail the GCC’s efforts. Yet instead of threatening punishment against Saleh’s repression, Washington has tried to disperse protesters so that Saleh doesn’t shoot them.

At first glance Saleh and the Obama administration's positions may appear to diverge. While Saleh doesn’t want to leave power at all, Washington wants to cool Yemen off by replacing Saleh’s regime with a new face. The revolution will die down and U.S. counter-terror operations can resume under their normal activity, a plan that ignores the entire concept of counterinsurgency. Whether or not U.S. officials flipped after Saleh backed out is up for debate, but their goals remain parallel rather than perpendicular.

Different means, same side - same end.

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