May 13, 2011

Yemen’s Revolution Is Non-Negotiable

How many times must he resist before the message gets through?

Dubbed a “Friday of Unity,” Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh addressed his supporters in the capital’s Al-Sabeen Square, where he “confirmed” their support for “constitutional legitimacy and democracy.” Violence rocked numerous cities on Wednesday and Thursday, leaving over a dozen protesters dead and possibly over 1,000 injured, and Saleh was out to redirect blame as usual. Condemning the oppositional JMP for “acts of sabotage that can not be overlooked,” Saleh warned the political coalition, “Stop playing with fire, the Joint Meeting Parties. The Yemeni people and army all over the country will stand up to you."

After advising the JMP to reengage in “dialogue,” Yemen’s president of nearly 33 years told his remaining followers, "We will face the challenge with challenge... And who wants power, he should turn to the ballot boxes.”

Yemen’s mass of pro-democracy protesters already know this, of course. They have never expected him to quit willingly. Over a month ago, as Saleh’s officials and tribal network abandoned him in droves, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervened in Yemen’s revolution at the request of Washington and Riyadh. Offering favorable terms, including a 90-day transition and immunity for his entire family, Saleh has repeatedly signaled his approval of the initiative only to pull out at the last moment.

He also refuses to negotiate with any party except the JMP, part of his strategy to divide and conquer the wider opposition.

Pro-democracy protesters haven’t flinched. They possess 33 years of reasons not to trust Saleh’s word, including his January attempt to remove his term limit. They didn’t believe his promise to step down before the revolution began, and they especially don’t believe it now. That’s why they continue their three-month sit-in at Sana’a University's Al-Tagheer Square, why their marches are beginning to escalate on government installations, why they have lost the fear of death.

The party that appears most confused of Saleh’s actions sits 7,000 miles away. Slow to react since the revolution began, the Obama administration continues to weigh the future of 24 million Yemenis against several hundred militants. Panicking over the growth of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has launched two unsuccessful attacks on the U.S. homeland since 2009, the White House and Pentagon tolerated Saleh’s many faults to open Yemen’s door for U.S. forces. These faults, according to numerous WikiLeaks, include routine duplicity, mood swings, corruption and misappropriated U.S. technology.

In a counterinsurgency error of mammoth proportions, Washington decided to combat AQAP by running counter-terrorism operations through an unpopular dictator. “Hearts and minds” never registered in an impoverished state, and AQAP naturally expanded its own area of operations.

Facing a historic hot spot of anti-Americanism, the last two years of policy cemented America on Saleh’s side rather than reverse the trend. U.S. Special Forces and CIA agents had intensified their training programs for Saleh’s Republican Guard, a personal security force commanded by his son Ahmad (also favored as his successor). These units were subsequently deployed against the northern Houthis and secessionist Southern Movement rather than AQAP exclusively. U.S. air-strikes were also approved by Saleh and General David Petraeus (as CENTCOM commander) in January 2010.

Although Saleh assured Petraeus that he would take credit for U.S. cruise missiles and drone strikes, he immediately fingered Washington once they missed their targets. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the process, antagonizing local tribes and further chafing U.S.-Yemeni relations.

The Yemeni Human Rights Network recently released a report, “confirming that the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia and the United States have all committed human rights violations while conducting Yemeni counter-terrorism operations over the past two years. The report, which was distributed to journalists and human rights activists on 9 May 2011, explained that, “2009 and 2010 witnessed huge external interventions in Yemen by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the USA, which developed into direct military action that killed Yemeni citizens, all under the pretext of fighting al-Qaeda and curbing the Houthi movement.”

U.S. humanitarian aid designed to soften this one-dimensional military campaign was also sucked up by Saleh’s corrupt regime. Doubling down, the White House and Pentagon then tried to feed Saleh with a billion dollar package before the revolution broke out. Thus the Obama administration occupied the worst position possible when the revolution hit.

That Washington continues to cling to Saleh isn’t surprising - only short-sighted and hard-headed. On April 4th, The New York Times reported that White House had finally “shifted” into accepting his exit, and the GCC’s power transfer emerged soon afterward. However these reports were exaggerated. In supporting the GCC’s proposal, the Obama administration has prolonged Yemen’s revolution and the “chaos” it spawns. Protesters fundamentally oppose a delayed resignation, which provides an umbrella to stall under, while Saleh’s immunity clause emboldened his assault on protesters. It also serves U.S. interests in keeping him from testifying, as the Republican Guard is now leading the violent crackdown against the pro-democracy movement.

"We call on the rest of our brothers in the Gulf to ditch this plan, which is acting as a fig leaf for the regime and shielding it from prosecution despite all the killings," said Adel Al-Surabi, a member of the Civil Coalition of Revolutionary Youth (CCRY).

If President Barack Obama and his national security team truly back Saleh’s exit, they need to find an alternative to the GCC’s escape vehicle. Yet the Obama administration doesn’t sincerely wish to force Saleh’s exit. His fair-weather allegiance hasn’t provided enough motivation to reform U.S. policy, nor has his ongoing crackdown. After Wednesday’s bloodshed, the White House once again deferred to the State Department in supporting the GCC's proposal. This is not what the streets want to hear when Yemen’s Defense Ministry is telling security forces, “not to hesitate to maintain security and stability in the country with any means.”

On Friday, Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) responded by urging, “their brothers, particularly in the Gulf Countries Council and the countries around the world, that staying silent about the crimes that the regime is practicing against the peaceful revolutionary people allows Saleh's regime to commit more of them.”

Even the JMP, itself toying with political suicide, has declared the GCC's proposal "dead."

The GCC is scheduled to regroup next week in order to make a new push, and some officials and pundits are advising the Obama administration to assume a leading role. However Washington is already driving the GCC, albeit from the back-seat with Riyadh. These capitals control the wheel - Yemen isn’t even a GCC member. The real problem is Washington’s support for the GCC proposal, which protesters will never accept. They’ve already planned "Resolution Week," during which “the countdown for the fall of the regime will start.” A march on the fortified presidential palace is being seriously considered.

"The emirates and kingdoms of the GCC are the enemy of any revolution,” warned Abdulrahman Abdullah al Kamadi, a demonstrator who has been camped out in the square for over two months. “They cannot even admit what is going on here. This is not a political crisis: this is a revolution."

Whether going by GCC or CCYRC time, Washington has at least another week to do the right thing in Yemen, both strategically and morally. President Obama, who hasn’t touched Yemen since a March 18th statement, must personally intervene, cut U.S. aid to Saleh and pull out of the GCC's shadow. At the same time, the White House must devote its full attention towards the street coalitions and craft a proposal representative of Yemen’s entire spectrum. Contrary to supporting the youth, these coalitions deplore the fact that they’ve been shut out. Current U.S. policy feeds into the narrative of Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolution; Osama bin Laden’s ultimate grievance remains the Kingdom’s totalitarian grip on the Arab world. Washington must isolate Saudi Arabia instead of following its path of destruction.

America could deal a huge blow to al-Qaeda in Yemen, a true decapitating strike with minimal blow-back. All Obama has to do is support the revolution - unconditionally.

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