April 26, 2011

Yemeni Revolutionaries Plot Next Step

They’ve been branded “criminals,” thieves,” “drug-dealers,” “saboteurs,” and “sick souls.” They’ve been linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. They’ve been accused of corrupting the youth, starting riots, fomenting anarchy and driving the country towards civil war. They’ve even been summoned for interrogation into their actions during the last three months.

Yet none of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s threats have deterred the leaders of Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the country’s only political opposition and Saleh’s sole negotiating partner, from accepting a final invite to Riyadh.

Today Tarik al-Shami, spokesman for the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), said the government will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to sign an agreement drafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Washington. JMP spokesman Mohammed Qahtan added that the group’s delegation would also depart for Riyadh on Wednesday: “I'm not quite sure that the deal would be sealed on Wednesday, but the GCC mediators confirmed that they arranged everything to make the deal inked on Wednesday.”

Separately, an anonymous source in Saudi Arabia told Gulf News, “The delegations of the Yemeni government and the opposition will sign the agreement on Monday at a ceremony in Riyadh.”

Despite Yemen’s prevalent confusion, the collective strategy of Saleh, the GCC and Western allies shines through in high resolution: steamroll an unfavorable agreement on an unpopular opposition. Never accepting the proposal himself, Saleh continues to malign the JMP and greet pro-democracy protesters with tear gas and live bullets. More injuries and deaths were reported in Aden, Taiz and elsewhere following GCC negotiations, while Saleh maintained his hard-line stance of “peacefully exchanging power” through the “ballot box.”

"We are not against change, but by the peaceful democratic means and within the constitution and respect for the people's will," he said during a meeting with GPC officials.

The GCC’s proposal currently calls for Saleh to transfer power to his vice president, Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi, in line with Yemen’s constitution. However most of his opponents in the streets don’t take this to be his meaning. Instead, they believe Saleh is literally hinting at remaining in power until his term ends in 2013. Referring to his own supporters as the “majority” and the opposition as the “minority” feeds into this perception. Rumors also speculate that the GCC’s last resort calls for a popular referendum on Saleh’s immediate resignation, something the government would be naturally tempted to corrupt.

Then there’s the fact that multiple sources have ridiculed the JMP for “rejecting” the GCC’s proposal, even as it prepares to sign an unpopular initiative. According to one of Saleh’s advisers, “This will be good for the president, because now it’s clear that the opposition has refused everything. The opposition has shown that they fear going into a coalition, and they are not ready to deal with international initiatives. They are divided and weak.”

This statement represents Saleh’s plan from the beginning: divide the JMP from the wider revolution and destroy any remaining chance of electoral success. Saleh has fed the JMP to the lions by defying popular demands for his immediate resignation and extracting immunity from the GCC. Meanwhile, during his interview with the BBC, Saleh accused the JMP’s camps of being filled with AQAP, Nasserites, Socialists and Muslim Brothers. These parties correspond to the JMP’s umbrella: Nasserite Unionist People's Organization, Yemeni Socialist Party and Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah).

Eager to slander and scapegoat them - and just as eager to “negotiate” with them - Saleh plans to make the JMP as unpopular as possible before running against them. Whether he remains in power or maintains an external grip through his GPC doesn’t alter their plan.

Although U.S. and E.U. officials will witness the signing of a document crafted in the West’s looming shadow, the White House remains deathly silent on Yemen’s developments. Meanwhile its statement congratulating Saleh and the opposition’s acceptance quickly disappeared from Yemen’s Embassy site. So supportive of the GCC's proposal is the State Department that it appears to have released its own statement off record. State also skipped its briefings on Monday and Tuesday, a possible sign of wider disarray within the Obama administration.

Spokesman Mark Toner reinforced this impression by releasing a belated statement on Uganda’s unrest, remarks that needed to be voiced a week ago.

All available evidence points to escalation and division rather than deescalation and unity, yet the Obama administration has stubbornly supported its own initiative to extract a favorable outcome for itself and Gulf allies. The fruits of Karmic law stem from positive and negative seeds, and such a biased, insincere document doesn’t favor Yemeni or U.S. interests in the way that Washington seems to envision. Assuming the GCC’s proposal is signed between Wednesday and Monday, a 30-day period before Saleh “resigns” takes the crisis to June. A 60-day transition period aims a national election before the start of Ramadan on August 1st, a window likely to open during the last week of July. U.S. officials went on record pushing an election before Ramadan, viewing a delayed election as “good for al-Qaeda and bad for us.”

Problematically, Washington and the GCC’s scheme poses a high risk of collapse between and at these intervals. The Western media ate up Saleh's “resignation” on Saturday, then largely fled the scene after realizing his end isn’t close to near. Duplicity is Saleh’s forte and most protesters in Yemen’s streets expect him to default on the GCC at some point. Having received his demands in full, Saleh’s confidence suggests that he doesn’t expect Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to move against him in the end.

An election, whether in the immediate future or in 90 days, also stands a good chance of opening under GPC control. Fraud and gridlock should be expected (think Afghanistan and Iraq), furthering the country’s stalemate rather than unblocking it.

"This agreement disappoints our hopes,” said Hamdan Zayed in Sanaa, where thousands of protesters have been camped out for weeks. “The president hasn't left power. He got what he wanted -- he and his supporters will leave without being tried for the killing of protesters and the money they've embezzled. He has achieved victory over the opposition, but as for us, we'll continue our revolution. We won't leave the streets because of this embarrassing agreement."

So where does Yemen’s popular movement go from here? One protester, Abdul Akram, explained from Taiz, "Every day is the same now. We march, they shoot at us - but we will not stop, whatever the JMP and Saleh have agreed."

Tired may not be the word to describe them, but demonstrating for three months under intense violence and social tensions inevitably takes a toll. Although a myriad of groups have done what they can to consolidate, no dominate umbrella has emerged as the revolution’s definitive face. No level of organization would have crashed the GCC’s dialogue - this room was only open to the malleable - but Yemen's popular opposition must achieve a crystalline form in order to mount a meaningful resistance in the upcoming election.

For now they’re being forced to consider the alternatives - increasing violence and marching on the heavily-guarded presidential palace. Instead of relieving pressure in the streets, the GCC’s initiative has generated new desperation amongst protesters as they face a brief lull in demonstrations. Mass marches only accomplish so much by themselves, and the need now exists to divert attention away from and discredit the GCC’s summit in Riyadh. There is, admittedly, no way for Yemen’s popular movement to deny the GCC’s initiative as the bloc plows ahead. Desperate times often lead to desperate actions.

Ahmed Abduh, a member of Young Movement for Change, told Arab News, “We know that there would be bloody clashes, but we have no choice. The protesters are frustrated and want their demands to be met urgently. We would like to say ‘enough’ to the elusive and tricky behavior of the regime.”

Unfortunately for the protesters their desperation is factored into Saleh’s plan. While his threats of civil war have been negated by a relatively non-violent uprising, a strategy the protesters cannot afford to jeopardize, Saleh will jump on any escalation in violence to discredit the revolution. Increased organization, continual development of a detailed transition and relentless media interaction remain central to success. Yemen’s youth must ensure that they’ve reached the limits of their present means before compromising their non-violent stance, which has preserved the moral high-ground over Saleh.

Although this advantage hasn’t been worth much to the international community, the cost of losing it is bound to be disproportionately high.

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