June 8, 2011

A Real Democratic Transition In Yemen

Saudi Arabia finally bailed the White House out of Yemen’s political morass by extracting its wounded president over the weekend, ending months of waffling silence and repetition. Still, government sources claim that Ali Abdullah Saleh only agreed to board the King’s jet after his condition deteriorated, necessitating a secure location to recuperate. What are now reported as “serious second-degree burns,” shrapnel wounds in his chest, a collapsed lung and ruptured skull could take months to heal.

Western and Gulf actors assume that Saleh’s evacuation opened a gap to unlock Yemen’s political crisis. While this theory is partially true, external forces are already charting a reckless collision with Yemen’s pro-democracy movement.

Many Yemenis and observers believe that Saleh couldn’t return to Sana’a if he wanted to; either Riyadh and Washington will lock him down or the youth will seize him at the airport. He’s also considered to be politically decapitated at this point. Conversely, Saleh’s ruling General People’s Party (GPC) maintains his authority and promises a return. His son, Ahmad, and nephews still command his remaining security forces in major cities, threats that must be taken seriously despite mounting pressure on the Kingdom. Saleh’s government remains semi-hostile to Washington, normal behavior during their rocky relationship.

“The American government is mainly interested in a transfer of power from whomever to whomever,” said Ahmed al-Sufi, one of several presidential spokesman. “This is why they make up these stories. Definitely within a week, he will come back.”

Problematically, Saleh’s sudden exit runs a high risk of stunting Yemen’s growth under foreign interference. With the embattled president temporary removed from the equation, the Obama administration is lobbying Riyadh to squeeze his signature onto the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) power transfer. U.S. and Saudi officials circumvented the street movement for two months by negotiating between the GPC and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), designing a favorable extraction to preserve their interests. The resulting “30-60” plan demanded Saleh's resignation in 30 days, followed by a two-month transition into a presidential election.

As Saleh and his family were granted immunity from widespread human rights abuses, along with 50% of a transitional council through the GPC, popular coalitions denounced the GCC’s initiative for usurping the revolution. Few trusted Saleh, a notorious two-face, to sign anyway.

That didn’t stop the Obama administration from clinging to the proposal even after Saleh besieged the UAE Embassy, trapping U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein in the melee. U.S. officials continued to advocate the GCC’s proposal - and Saleh’s “commitment to transfer power” - after he attacked the head of his own Hashid tribe. And after Saleh’s security forces rigged water cannons with gasoline to burn down Taiz’s “Freedom Square,” torching protesters alive. And during the ensuing weeks of “civil war” manufactured by a desperate Saleh. The JMP had labeled the GCC’s proposal as a “death sentence” by the time White House counter-terror chief John Brennan landed in Saudi Arabia.

Now the GCC is back to haunt Yemen’s democratic spirit.

The days surrounding Saleh’s assassination attempt moved the Obama administration as much as five months of revolution. Although issuing no reaction until Sunday night, two days after an explosion tore apart Saleh’s personal mosque, U.S. officials such as Vice President Joe Biden contacted his counterpart throughout Saturday. Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi suddenly found himself in charge just as Yemen’s constitution and the GCC stipulated, and Ambassador Feienstein met him on Sunday to promote continuity. Lingering troubles aside, Washington relished how the last 72 hours unfolded. The EU and even NATO jumped behind the GCC’s initiative as the only path to a “peaceful transition to democracy.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inadvertently revealed the fatal flaw in U.S. policy on Monday: “The civilian government remains in power in Yemen. The vice president is currently serving as the acting president. And our position has not changed. It continues to remain the same.”

As Biden, Clinton, Feierstein and Brennan all frantically pressured “acting” al-Hadi to accept power, tens of thousands of protesters marched on his residence to issue their demands. Contrary to handing their transition over to the GPC (as the JMP already agreed to), Yemen’s popular opposition demands a transitional council be formed immediately to govern for 6-12 months. The JMP calls this the “alternative option" when it should be the first; so far al-Hadi and the GPC have rejected protesters and the JMP's overtures.

The Media Council of the Youth Revolution announced on Tuesday, “The youth are still protesting in front of the acting President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi's house... They demanded to start forming a Transitional Council that consists of national figures, urging Hadi to meet all the youths' demands.”

U.S. policy in Yemen requires a total strategic realignment. Nevertheless, parts of this situation could have run a different course through a transparent response. Factoring in the sensitivity around Saleh and contradictory statements from GPC and Saudi officials, the Obama administration still failed to deliver a clear message during the chaos. U.S. officials silently and immediately moved onto al-Hadi as if personally legitimizing his rule. Only late Sunday did the State Department first clarify, "Our position is still that we would call on Saleh to immediately begin a transition of power.” After multiple rewrites, many of them opposed by the JMP, the GCC’s terms are more ambiguous than ever.

“Immediate” remains undefined.

Considering that U.S. officials push this deal without offering details, not even the White House seems to understand how the GCC’s proposal would operate on the ground. So officials are resorting to blatant falsities in order to control Yemen’s transition. While Clinton claimed that a civilian government “remains in power,” al-Hadi is widely assumed to be acting as Ahmad’s mask until his father decides his future. Ambassador Feierstein met with the JMP on Monday to deliver another disturbing message: “cooperate with the vice president and the ruling party.” The State Department further urged the opposition to work with the GPC to form a “unity” government.

Not only is Ahmad running the show in his father’s absence, the White House is fuming that al-Hadi himself refused to accept the presidency. Rather than legitimatize Yemen’s revolutionary transition council, the Obama administration is again side-stepping the street coalitions by pressuring the JMP to negotiate with a resistant GPC - a policy both impractical and illogical.

Lobbying Riyadh to hold onto Saleh has become a red herring, as his exit forms part of a foreign scheme to retain influence in Yemen. While the Obama administration urged the Saudis to take “ownership” over the past months, Yemen’s pro-democracy movement unconditionally opposes a Saudi-led transition. Fears of a Saudi takeover are eclipsing the U.S.-backed GCC proposal; Riyadh will not foster political or economic reform, only seek to maintain a favorable status quo. The White House must fold on al-Hadi and the GCC’s rapid-fire election while opening direct communications with the popular revolution. Instead of colluding with the Kingdom (Bahrain) to install another weak regime, Western and Gulf states must recognize Yemen's transitional council as the legitimate government.

As Yemenis celebrate the lifting of a 33-year dark cloud, they also realize the next storm drifting over their new horizon. Saleh has been sacrificed to preserve his regime and keep him from snitching on the misuse of U.S. military aid. Threats of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continue to skyrocket, part of a campaign to seal the GCC’s proposal. Saleh was allowed to continue killing with impunity, yet the protesters are suddenly untrustworthy. They’ll fight over the transition process and ultimately succumb to tribal factions, or worse - extremists. AQAP will flourish. Thus Western and Gulf states must push for an immediate transition to cover up the last five months, recommitting the same mistakes rather than invest in Yemen’s transition.

For too long U.S. policy in Yemen emphasized security without democracy, unsurprisingly producing neither. Now the opposite strategy must be applied: give Yemen’s revolution the time and space it needs to grow independent.


  1. Saudi TV announces he's returning tomorrow, Mareb Press.

  2. The Obama administration isn't prepared for either possibility.

  3. The Obama Administration is influenced by Israeli displeasure with the Arab Revolts in general and by Saudi fears for the survival of the Royal Family. I am on the verge of calling for a Yemeni Declaration of Independence from Saudi, US and all other interferences in Yemeni affairs.

  4. The popular coalitions should get to work on something like this, if they haven't already.