August 22, 2011

Saleh Prepares His Next Double-Deal

As Yemen’s latest “National Council” struggles to keep itself together, it is important to appreciate the long odds Yemen’s revolutionaries are defiantly facing. Like their counterparts in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, Yemenis have been pitted against each other in a simulated survival-of-the-fittest, designed to weaken every opponent at once. Ali Abdullah Saleh became especially accustomed to “dancing on the heads of snakes,” as he called the various factions that make up Yemen’s diverse political landscape.

All of these peoples have been suppressed and compartmentalized for decades, so to unify in less than a year qualifies as an extraordinary feat. American political leaders continued their political maneuvering after an eight year revolution, and Arabs from every generation deserve as long as their own revolution takes.

Yemen’s new “National Council” initially appeared to stand upright before wobbling to one knee again. Dual “revolutionary” councils announced by Tawakel Karman and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which Karman belongs to through the Islah Party, failed to unify Yemen’s entire opposition and the NC promised to include all parties: the JMP, outlying tribes, northern Houthi sect, secessionist-oriented Southern Movement, the urban youth and popular revolutionaries of all ages. Although the NC was prepared and announced weeks in advanced, the déjà vu of Karman’s council struck by surprising some figures on 143-member council and unsettling others.

The council suffered its largest blow immediately when the southern bloc withdrew, citing its own under-representation amid a defense of the Houthis.

“We have been marginalized and our position and point of view have not been considered,” 23 opposition figures representing the southern cause said in a statement... “Any national council assumes the responsibility of leading the peaceful revolution of the people to overthrow the remains of the system, and should be equally divided between the South and the North, and would strengthen mutual trust and mobilize all energies and capabilities to accelerate the revolution.”

“The council also ignored some political forces in the country including the southern peaceful movement (Harak), the popular revolution, the Houthi Group and others which led the process of change in the country,” the group added.

Hussein al-Ahmar, a minor chief in Saleh’s own Hashid tribal confederation, has also withdrawn his National Tadhamon (Solidarity) Council under a common complaint: the NC only represents the bodies that formed it and thus misrepresents the whole opposition. al-Ahmar claims to have been offered - and turned down - the position of secretary-general in Saleh’s General People's Congress (GPC) several months before the revolution began. Although a suspect individual due to his association with both the al-Ahmar family and Saleh’s regime, which he defected from in late February, al-Ahmar public statements sync with a collection of youth coalitions, individual activists and human rights groups.

The Haq party, one element of the JMP, withdrew because "it's not a national council."

On top of the underlying principle that Yemen’s opposition needs time to organize a unified platform, a second factor reduces the negativity surrounding the NC’s complications. Instead of addressing the problems of initial councils - mainly unequal representation of the north, south and youth - the JMP remains unwilling to cede its political position. Now might be a good time for the coalition to dissolve, but the political factions and their tribal affiliations continue to syphon power from popular revolutionaries. Sadiq and Hamid al-Ahmar, the Hashid’s leaders, and defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar could win public support by leaving power to the people, but with minimal popular representation, Yemen’s traditional power brokers are only solidifying their greedy perceptions.

The Arab Sisters Forum rejected the NC because it "reproduced the dominance of the traditional tribal and military forces which were the essence of tyranny of the regime.” A statement from youth in Sana’a added, "The council of the opposition is only a response to the desire of Hamid Al Ahmar who wants to turn the youth and some activists of the civil society and some social figures to soldiers working him to achieve his ambitions to rule Yemen.”

The positive side of this imbalance leaves the door open for unification; the southern bloc, Houthis and youth remain open to a national revolutionary council that grants equal representation. Each party isn’t absolutely opposed to reconciliation, a critical fact often lost in foreign reporting of Yemen’s division. The council’s objectives must simplify the north-south divide into a united vision to end Saleh’s regime, with the reunification debate to follow. Unfortunately the JMP is left in the middle of progress.

While Yemenis may be able to overcome this weakness through organization, Saleh pounces on every JMP mistake and exploits the coalition as a scapegoat for revolution. It is for this reason, above all, that popular protesters must gain control of Yemen’s revolutionary council.

As he has done throughout the past six months, Saleh’s regime recently launched another coordinated assault on the JMP, first striking with propaganda before hitting Yemen’s political sphere. Whenever the regime isn’t slandering the JMP for all of Yemen’s woes - the fuel crisis, “corrupting the youth,” coordinating with AQAP - Saleh is only willing to negotiate with the JMP. Knowing that coalition wasn’t popular before the revolution started, Saleh made an early calculated decision to string the revolutionaries along through the JMP. The coalition played right into his hands by jockeying for position in a “post-Saleh” Yemen and angling the international community, mainly the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

After negotiating a deeply unpopular “transition” with the regime, the JMP has walked back from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative without fully dropping its support.

Pleased with the JMP’s handling of a revolutionary council, Saleh’s regime has undermined the group with a loaded arsenal of political, military and economic tactics. Last week GPC officials blamed Hamid al-Ahmar, a leading JMP member through the Islah party, for the attempted assassination on Saleh, a claim that Hamid’s supporters and detractors equally disbelieve. The announcement coincided with reports that Saleh was “considering” new amendments to the GCC before agreeing to sign. This pattern is unchanging; any motion towards the GCC’s initiative is countered by propaganda against the JMP. Less than a day after accusing Hamid, Deputy Information Minister Abdo Al-Janadi “escaped” his own assassination outside his house.

The JMP does have reason to silence al-Janadi, one of Saleh’s loudest mouthpieces, after months of vilification. The minister has condemned each revolutionary council as a “coup,” denounced al-Ahmar’s tribal alliance and accused the JMP “of stealing the youth revolution by announcing formation of the National Council of the Revolution.” Some of his slander does hit the mark: "We see multiple names referring to the same entity. These names include the Joint Meeting Parties [JMP], the interim council, the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue, the national assembly, as well as other names also adopted by the opposition.”

A valid complaint makes for decent propaganda, but the youth cannot be swayed to the government’s side, especially when it continues to negotiate with the JMP.

Considering these factors, an open attempt on al-Janadi’s life remains unlikely due to the government’s anticipated manipulation. A rogue faction is always a possibility, but so is the regime’s staging of an assassination attempt. Between meetings to “look over” the GCC’s initiative, Saleh’s regime barrages the JMP with threats in an attempt to provoke hostilities and further justify a crackdown. As suppressive fire paves the way for an invasion force, Saleh hopes to return to Sana’a and bring the GCC’s initiative down completely by shifting his narrative to elections. Wednesday marks the GPC’s 30th anniversary and the party, already allocated half of a transitional council through the GCC, expects to win big “at the ballot box.”

While al-Janadi blasts the JMP for not wanting to “engage in elections” or “acknowledge that the people are the source of power,” Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi recently declared that Saleh "has more supporters than the opposition." He called for early elections in place of a transitional council

The perceived downfall of Muammar Gaddafi has just ratcheted up Yemen’s tensions to a new level. Many forces are already converging: Saleh’s return, the JMP’s National Council, undying revolutionary fervor, the looming end of Ramadan. U.S. and Saudi support continues to embolden Saleh while driving the revolutionaries to desperation. Now the regime is planning for the “worst case scenario” and has cordoned off Sana’a with tanks and quick-triggered Republican Guards. Having listened to oppositional figures express their renewal, Saleh prepared for the same wave that Bashar al-Assad is on alert for.

Yemen’s revolution is unlikely to end in the next nine days, for all of the above reasons, but Saleh appears to be planning his next chain reaction. Severe turbulence is a high possibility.

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