They gather in their leather chairs and air-conditioned rooms, dine on delicacies in their fitted suits. White-robbed Saudi officials mingle with Gulf ministers and Western diplomats as they negotiate the future of a foreign people. Some 600 miles south of Riyadh in Sana’a and Aden, Yemeni protesters face walls of tear gas and live bullets while pursuing an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. Wounded in droves, their vow to continue resisting evokes a hallowed American declaration - liberty or death.
Two political scenes manifesting into their physical essence: an “orderly transition” vs. the fire of revolution. How ironic, though, that order may lead to chaos and chaos to order.
As scrutiny intensifies over the Obama administration's response to Syria, pro-democracy protesters should realize that their plight has at least captured the international community’s attention. A regular topic during White House and State Department briefings, UN ambassador Susan Rice told the Security Council’s “stakeout” on April 26th, “The Syrian Government's actions to repeal the decade's old emergency law and allow for peaceful demonstrations were clearly not serious, given the continued violent repression against protesters. The United States is currently pursuing a range of possible policy options, including additional targeted sanctions, to respond to the crackdown and make clear that this behavior is unacceptable.”
Soon afterward, the Human Rights Council based at the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva agreed to a U.S. request to hold a Syrian session on Friday. Responding to questions over singling out one country, U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe argued, "It is entirely appropriate that the Human Rights Council condemn willful government violence against peaceful political protesters.”
This consolation won't produce immediate results on the ground, but Western governments don’t appear to be forcing Syria's opposition into accepting al-Assad’s terms either. Compare this situation to the paradoxical circumstances of their Yemeni counterparts. Copying the tactics of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has foolishly escalated his suppression to a point that Western states cannot ignore. Meanwhile Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has escaped punishment by mimicking Hosni Mubarak’s “limited” force: plainclothes security forces, snipers, kidnappings and clouds of tear gas to disperse protesters.
Although the UN Security Council finally got around to Yemen’s revolution last week, the council failed to agree on a statement due to Russia and China’s objection. Were they to agree, however, the statement would likely remain the same. Condemning the actions of Saleh’s security forces, Rice then committed the same disconnect that other U.S. officials have preached in Yemen. Rice told reporters after the session, "Many delegations, including our own, stressed the importance of an end to violence and a political process that resolves swiftly in a credible transition.”
In Syria, ongoing violence proves that al-Assad’s reforms are "clearly not serious.” In Yemen, ongoing violence offers a reason to sign a political agreement with Saleh as soon as possible. It still pays to be needed in the war against al-Qaeda.
The GCC’s “efforts” are about to be sealed on Sunday during a ceremony in Riyadh, according to Gulf sources. Saleh’s representatives may join the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) in Saudi Arabia, but plans also exist to have Saleh sign in Sana’a in the presence of U.S. and E.U. officials. As stipulated in the GCC’s document, authored with heavy input from U.S. and Saudi diplomats, Saleh is to transfer power to his vice president of 17 years, Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi. The GCC calls for Saleh to resign 30 days later, after which a 60-day transition period will organize the country for a national election. As Saleh’s General People’s Council (GPC) also been allocated majority control over a transitional council, the deal also stipulates immunity for Saleh and his family.
He’s particularly worried about the fate of his son, Ahmad, who as commander of the Republican Guard is responsible for many crimes against the Yemeni people. Not long ago Saleh envisioned Ahmad as his successor, a dream that has yet to die.
Believing that the constitution’s legitimacy means nothing as Saleh defines it, Yemeni protesters have rejected most aspects of the proposal: a postponed resignation, immunity, Saleh's personal selections and a clause ordering them to return home. Growing increasingly desperate as they watch Saudi Arabia and the West rescue Saleh from their revolution, protesters are strategizing a new campaign to interrupt the GCC’s summit and capture Yemen's narrative. A daunting challenge to be sure, desperation has increased pressure to march on the fortified presidential palace and other government installations. For now protesters have chosen wisely by starting “smaller,” launching a mass civil disobedience campaign aimed at the GCC and planning marches on the Saudi embassy.
If there is to be violence, let Saleh be the one to keep committing it. Hussein al-Suleily, 28, a protest leader in the central city of Taiz, rationally explained, “It is important for putting pressure in peaceful ways to protest our demands as the youth. This is part of our peaceful method. Yet the regime continues to use violence against us. It’s a series of violence that has only escalated in these 80 days of demonstrations.”
Some pro-democracy protesters admitted to forcing themselves on police and throwing stones to provoke them, and others have distanced themselves from these acts. Many youth leaders continue to preach a non-violent message to contain the streets' swelling energy. However stones over bullets is a basic and necessary equation in fourth-generation warfare; true to form, low-intensity resistance provokes a disproportionate response from the government. Wednesday’s death toll was tallied between 12 and 15, with hundreds more wounded, after protesters rallying against the GCC attempted to march on Al-Thawra stadium, the Ministry of Information and the Saudi embassy.
"Police forces and government backers fired on a march of thousands of anti-government protesters near the Yemeni state television station, leaving 12 protesters dead and about 160 others injured, 18 of them were in critical condition after being hit with live bullets," two doctors accompanying the march told Xinhua.
An attack also took place in front of Al Iman University. Activists and lawyers in the movement further alleged that the Republican Guard and Central Security kidnapped dozens of protesters, claiming some were taken to Al-Thawra (which has been dubbed Revolution Stadium). One witness added, "Some tried to help, but the forces fired live bullets at them forcing them to run away.”
Nothing has changed since Ambassador Rice explained, “We also, as did many others, express support for the facilitation effort of the GCC." Yet the White House, after encouraging the GCC’s plan over the weekend, continues to refuse any further comment on Yemen’s revolution. U.S. and Saudi officials appear determined to sign the agreement regardless of the situation on the ground. The EU has followed off the cliff, with foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton telling Arab News, "I would like to thank the GCC for its hard work toward securing political agreement for transition in Yemen. I believe that the GCC initiative represents the best chance for Yemen to address the economic, social and security challenges ahead and to avoid escalation of violence."
This vain self-congratulations - an ignorant display of fourth-generation warfare - was immediately exploited by Yemen’s Saba state media.
The reality is that Saleh’s forces continue to kill and wound Yemenis with impunity, and the West is prepared to sign a deal that the majority of protesters oppose. This illegitimate and immoral document neither stabilizes Yemen nor promotes U.S. and European values, only salvages a short-term policy that isn’t worth salvaging. The GCC essentially offers a quick fix, which is a myth in conflict resolution. Offering Saleh immunity has simply encouraged his crackdown. Once more he has duped Western and Gulf states into believing Yemen is safer with him than without him, when his presence has generated the revolution they’re currently panicking over.
No path offers a sure means to stabilizing Yemen, but the one with higher odds leads to the protest camps in Sana’a, Taiz and Aden. A legitimate political resolution must factor in their demands and cleanse the old regime, rather than fulfill Saleh's every demand and fill the transitional council with his ruling GPC. "Orderly" certainly defines this "transition," and scant change is likely to come from it.
“This is a youth revolution, not a political crisis,” al-Suleily concluded in frustration.
The wave of violence, estimated as Yemen’s worst since the March 18th sniper attack in Sana’a, has rattled even the JMP. Yemen’s only political opposition has soldiered on with Saleh despite his persistent slander, either chasing fleeting political aspirations or believing it has no choice. To be fair Saleh awaits the slightest weakness in the JMP’s position in order to reject the GCC’s initiative outright; agreeing through officials represents another stall tactic to trap the JMP. Then Yemenis would be stuck with Saleh for an unknown length of time.
“We demand a serious and clear stance if the agreement is going to proceed successfully by condemning these crimes that were carried out by the military and security,” the statement read. “We have agreed to this proposal in order to save our people from more bloodshed.”
Problematically, the GCC fails to guarantee Saleh’s resignation in any tangible way, having played to his strengths and given him everything he’s asked for. Saleh loves to back-track and pulling out of the GCC's initiative at a later date shouldn't surprise anyone. The JMP concluded that there is “no reason to participate” in the GCC’s summit if Saleh and his “family continues to kill our sons and people.” Only Washington and Riyadh see a reason to - their own interests. Everyone else can be snuffed out.
But as these governments struggle to contain the Arab Spring, they blindly fan the revolutionary flames that they're trying to outrun.