May 9, 2011

Yemeni Protesters Aim to Break Western Wall

Video from Taiz, Yemen

Growing increasingly desperate to halt a power transfer orchestrated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Yemen’s street coalitions are tuning their message for foreign consumption. In bypassing the GCC as the Saudi-U.S. tool that it currently functions as, protesters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime are considering their options to shock the international community into its senses.

Over the weekend a group of coalitions operating under the title “Youth Revolution,” called upon, “the United States, the European Union and the permanent (U.N.) Security Council members to assume their moral responsibility and stop... meddling directed against the will of the Yemeni people to ensure freedom and democracy.”

Meanwhile Yemen’s oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) finds itself in the opposite position: pressuring the international community into securing Saleh's signature. The JMP has clung to the GCC’s unpopular proposal, which stipulates Saleh’s resignation after 30 days and elections 60 days later, despite numerous traps and delays on Saleh’s end. Yet with the GCC proposal in flux and Saleh’s violent suppression in effect, the JMP released its own statement, “calling on brotherly countries to withhold any official contacts with what remains of this bloody regime and to refrain from offering any material or moral support which it would use to suppress the people.”

U.S. officials are publicly heeding the protesters' demand, just not in the way they or the JMP were hoping for.

Acting as though it hasn’t heard of Yemen’s revolution, the Obama administration has fled the political scene and left pro-democracy protesters for dead. Already locked down before the GCC’s proposal collapsed two weeks ago, the White House and State Department sent silent after Saleh refused to sign multiple times. Outbreaks of violence elapse in darkness, punctuated only by the occasional U.S. statement warning “all sides” against the use of violence. Osama bin Laden’s death brought renewed focus to Yemen, home of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), except most of this attention avoided the political crisis.

The White House has released upwards of nine statements on Syria since April 1st, several from President Barack Obama, compared to Yemen’s solitary (and hollow) statement from April 5th. This count excludes the release calling for a “swift” implementation of the GCC’s initiative. The State Department has addressed Yemen during four briefings since April 1st, compared to 13 statements on Syria. Nor are sanctions on Saleh's family forthcoming due to U.S. immunity, along with the fact that his son and nephew serve as the Pentagon's military liaisons.

Now, with Saleh’s forces shooting teachers and students as protesters denounce the GCC’s role in their revolution, the State Department once more ignored Yemen’s crisis, setting the tone for the rest of the week.

Perhaps the Obama administration considers its silent policy as “not meddling” in Yemen’s affairs. When U.S. officials have been quizzed on Yemen’s revolution, their response invariably passes the responsibility onto Yemen’s government and people. They must work through their own problems, so the theory goes. Of course this position is inherently flawed given Washington’s past and current support for Saleh; the Obama administration’s private activity is inversely proportional to its public absence.

Yemen’s revolution hasn’t been left for its people to decide. Instead of engaging the street movement, U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein initially requested proposals to transfer power only to reject them after the coalitions organized their demands. First on the list was Saleh’s immediate resignation and trial, something that neither Washington nor Riyadh was willing to accept. Thus the GCC was summoned to run their policy through, and U.S. and Saudi diplomats subsequently busied themselves debating Yemen’s future with members of Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC).

The JMP were brought in as the final piece, lured by the mirage of power. Its leaders include Hamid al-Ahmar, a senior leader in the Hashid tribe long considered Yemen’s main oppositional figure. al-Ahmar jumped on the revolution early, triggering a gradual wave of tribal defections from Saleh’s support network. Due to his ambitions, the general secretary of the Preparatory Committee of the National Dialogue is also distrusted by many protesters, either due to his personal motives or connections to Saudi Arabia.

The streets widely oppose negotiations run through the JMP. According to a statement issued by the Civil Coalition of Youth Revolution (CCYR), “Those ambitious leaders would be in the same group with Saleh and would be politically dead if they signed.”

“To make things clear,” explains Hamza Shargabi, a doctor involved in the revolution, “the protesters all around the country have refused to deal with this initiative since they want, a revolution doesn't negotiate ever and any initiative, any political proposal that doesn't bring out the immediate departure of this regime is not something worth looking at by the protesters.”

Although visibly fearful of losing Saleh and his halfhearted resistance against AQAP, the Obama administration cannot legitimately argue a neutral position in Yemen’s revolution. Few protesters feel any support from America. The only U.S. official to speak on record Monday was Daniel Benjamin, a counter-terrorism official who continues to view Yemen’s revolution through a military lens.

“It certainly is not helping our counter-terrorism efforts that we have seen the kind of political impasse that we’ve had in Yemen and that there have been so many demonstrations,” he said. “Obviously there is going to be concern about security services being distracted by internal issues.”

This is the essence of U.S. policy - “security services distracted by internal issues.” Washington wants to patch up Yemen’s crisis and carry on in the fight against AQAP. But the revolution isn’t going away. Al Sadi, a protest leader who recently quit the Islah party, told Nasser Araybee, “I’m not bored from our revolution, I’m bored and frustrated from the leaders of the opposition who did nothing but obstructed us.”

On Monday the CCYR demanded that U.S. and EU governments, “ask for Saleh’s immediate departure from power, as his legitimacy ended, and to condemn the guarantee of Saleh’s immunity from prosecution offered by the Gulf Cooperation council (GCC).” As for the GCC, “We ask our brothers in Gulf countries to apply pressure –and they are able to- on Saleh and his regime to leave. We express our sadness over silent attitudes towards the daily looting and killing of Yemeni people."

The GCC's initiative doesn't represent a pragmatic approach to Yemen, contrary to the spin of U.S. and Gulf officials. Nothing workable is coming out of Saleh except for new intelligence on AQAP, bait that will ultimately prolong the security vacuum. The simple fact is that neither Washington nor Riyadh, the only two foreign actors of any consequences, wish to see Saleh go. If he does go it won’t be immediate, and his GPC stands to inherent the transfer council under the GCC’s current terms. Retroactive immunity could allow Saleh to return at a later date.

“The fact is, he never wanted to sign it, or to step down,” noted a diplomat familiar with the talks. “These are just political maneuvers, and his reasons for refusing make no sense.”

Left without recourse, protesters continue to plot what could be their final move: marching on the presidential palace. For weeks a march has surfed Yemen’s rumors, but most acknowledge that such a move is truly a last resort. Protesters expect to meet death at the most heavily guarded site in Sana’a, while defected general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar has further complicated the process by blocking any attempt with his personal guard. Like Al-Ahmad, Al-Ahmar is suspected of nursing his own visions of power.

However the coalitions have lost nearly all of of their patience with the JMP and GCC, and are searching for ways to punch Saleh in the mouth. According to the Yemen Post, “they feel that Saleh will never understand their message if the march does not take place.” The same can be said for Washington and Riyadh. For what it’s worth, the JMP also gave Saleh two days to sign the GCC’s initiative as Yemen’s president, otherwise it would leave to him to face "the people's choice."

Violent confrontation would throw the GCC agreement into chaos and pull U.S. deeper into Yemen’s conflict, all the while allowing al-Qaeda space to grow into.

The Obama administration’s response to Yemen’s revolution has been inexcusably insensitive and reactionary before the beginning. A woeful U.S. counter-terrorism policy stroked Saleh’s ego, lined his pockets and antagonized Yemen’s people, contributing to a revolution that now further binds U.S. policy. Rather than correct its errors and choose the protesters’ side, the Obama administration then staked out a silent position behind Saleh, violating fourth-generation warfare by abandoning the political and information spheres. As a result Yemeni protesters possess no trust in America, cutting Washington off from the revolution entirely.

The White House shouldn't wait until they displace Saleh to start listening.

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