April 21, 2011

White House’s Message to Yemeni Protesters: Go Home

Yesterday Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s embattled president, went beyond the country’s stalemate by smacking a political resolution backwards. As the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) shuttled diplomatic plans from U.S. officials amid rumors of a “new” initiative, Saleh reasserted his “legitimate” rule while rejecting a negotiated solution, arguing that power can only be transferred through “the ballot box.” His rhetoric belied reports of an impending agreement with the opposition.

Now it’s the White House turn to directly regress Yemen’s revolution. According to Mohammed Qahtan, a spokesman for the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), U.S. and European officials submitted their “30-60” plan on Thursday to Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the JMP. The arrangement calls for Saleh to transfer power immediately and resign in 30 days, and dictates a presidential election 60 days later.

It also calls for an immediate end to protests.

Such a demand spawns an all-consuming red flag over the “30-60” plan, even before this initiative is broken down as the scam that it is. Assigned the typical catchiness that governments love, Washington and Riyadh’s “30-60” plan represents spilled blood on the opposition’s side. This agreement, which sounds like a sports club in New York, carries over a plan drafted on Tuesday while adding the critical clause of ending the protests. Sensible from a military and economic standpoint - for Saleh - the demand offers the latest evidence that he will renege on the proposal at a later date.

“The first thing is that no one trusts him at all,” responded Mohammed Abdulmali al-Mutawakil, an opposition leader in Sana’a. “Who can guarantee that everything will be carried out?”

Fully aware of Saleh's trust deficit, Washington continues to dilute the opposition's terms under the plausible belief that the JMP's position is weakening. Its “30-60” plan no longer calls for Saleh to specifically transfer power to Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi, a move already opposed by Yemen’s popular opposition. Now the agreement stipulates that Saleh can pick his successor, while suggesting that he appoint an opposition leader to run an interim cabinet to prepare for elections. A “unity” government would be composed of 50% GPC, while 40% would go to the opposition groups and 10% to other minor factions.

“I believe the 30-60 plan is the practical way to transfer power,” says Qahtan. “We have accepted giving immunity, and we have made a significant sacrifice by accepting that the president will transfer power to a deputy of his choice. The only condition that we have made is that this deputy is not a member of his family.”

The defection of “military leaders and solders” would also end, as if the opposition has any control over their personal decisions. More troubling, al-Mutawakil voiced concern that the new proposal failed to clarify the fate of those units trained by U.S. Special Forces and controlled by Saleh’s son and nephews. Although Western and Gulf media have labeled the “30-60” plan as a compromise between Saleh and the opposition, Yemen’s revolution will be compromised by compromising with Saleh, surely part of Washington and Riyadh’s real intentions. This “compromise” is also growing more lopsided in the government’s favor over time, and appears designed to fracture the opposition rather than negotiate with Yemen’s protesters.

"This offer awaits the president's approval," said Hassan Zayd, secretary general of the Shiite Islamist Haq party and a member of an opposition delegation.

Rather than sincerely negotiate with the opposition, which holds no legitimacy to speak for the popular movement, Washington and the GCC have used Saleh’s stall tactics to gradually inch an initiative in his favor. Real conflict resolution doesn't work this way. With the streets unwilling to bend to stricter terms on Saleh, let alone a sweeter deal, parts of the JMP also might be losing faith in the GCC’s cover. While unconfirmed, the government-friendly Yemeni Observer reports that Yaseen Sa’eed No’man, chairman of the JMP, announced his resignation because of “dissatisfaction” over the GCC’s proposal.

Several JMP leaders have denied these claims. However opposition figures in Sana'a allege that No’man phoned in his resignation to the information office at “Change Square." Yemeni journalist Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani reported that No’man is, at the least, protesting the GCC’s dialogue and calling for negotiations to be held directly with the popular movement. Zaid played down the reports but did admit that No’Man’s phone has been turned off for three days. Zaid didn’t think No’man has resigned, “he just expressed his anger about the Gulf initiative.”

“I don’t know if the opposition will accept the Gulf initiative after the carnage of last Saturday and the past few days,” the optimistic Zaid continued. “I do not know whether the parties would accept it under pressure because of fears that the situation between the army, the Republican Guards and the Central Security would explode.”

As a final caution both the northern Houthis and Southern Movement claim to be unrepresented in the GCC dialogue. Saleh has treated each movement as a greater threat than al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and leaving a huge part of Yemen’s society out of negotiations was no accident.

Contrary to Western observers who believe Washington and Riyadh are slowly forcing Saleh out, Yemeni protesters don’t trust these two governments to fulfill their “guarantees.” Saleh continues to slander the JMP while negotiating with its delegation, a pattern he has adhered to since the revolution’s beginning. He knows the JMP lacks the authority to speak for the streets and has employed the political opposition as a stall tactic. Meanwhile GPC officials claim the situation in Taiz is normal, in contrast to widespread reports of violence. The GCC’s actions, as decided by Washington and the Saudis, supports the protesters’ intuition.

“They are part of this regime,” Salah Sharafi, a youth leader in Sana’a, said of the JMP. “If they are with the revolution, they won’t accept any initiative from G.C.C. or from the United States, unless it’s conditional with his stepping down firstly.”

“We see this as direct foreign intervention into Yemeni affairs,” added Adel al-Surabi, a leader of the student coalition credited with initiating the protest movement. “We’re not interested in exchanging one ruler for the next, keeping a system where all power stays in the hands of one man. We want a parliamentary system, and we will continue until we achieve it.”

Only if they can break through the combined muscle of Saleh, Washington and Riyadh, all of which would rather leave Yemen’s unpopular president in power and see protesters return home.

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