September 23, 2011

Yemen Moving While Standing Still

In many ways Ali Abulldah Saleh’s return to Yemen means nothing in its grand scheme.

Little has changed before and after June 3rd, when the besieged strongman fled to Saudi Arabia on medical leave, except for Yemen's body count. The violence that has unnerved the wider population of Sana’a and Taiz continues to take lives as security forces battle with oppositional militias. Saleh returned from Riyadh with his usual olive branch in one hand and rifle in the other, posturing around the “dialogue,” “constitutional legitimacy” and “elections” that have nourished him through nine months of revolution. Few protesters trust the Kingdom to act in their interests, so allowing his return wasn’t a surprise once the initial shock wore off.

Saleh expects to remain in power until a presidential election is held, and possibly afterward. Nevertheless, U.S. officials explicitly state that the Obama administration's policy hasn’t changed - that Saleh’s location doesn’t matter, and that he needs to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) “power transfer.”

“Our position remains unchanged,” the State Department’s Victoria Nuland told reporters on August 24th. “Whether he stays, whether he comes back, we need him to sign this GCC agreement and move on, allow his country to move on. So our position is unchanged.”

She would repeat on Friday, “Whether President Saleh is in or out of the country, he can make that happen by signing this accord, stepping down from power and allowing his country to move forward.”

Nuland appears to be all the administration can muster, a sacrificial pawn to be sure. The Obama administration is used to avoiding Yemen’s revolutionaries if possible, due to the fact that they oppose the GCC’s initiative. Then there’s the deluge in media reporting the surface of Yemen’s uprising, including the standard biographies of Saleh and emphasis on Yemen’s diverse (and often dysfunctional) opposition. Although main factors in the revolution, they often ignore or underestimate the protesters rejecting all usurpation of their struggle. If they can’t gain autonomy of their revolution, no other force will be able to get rid of them either.

They wanted him to come back anyway and face justice.

Saleh’s return, of course, isn’t insignificant and a national address is tentatively scheduled for Sunday. His presence could both stall and accelerate the revolution; for better or worse, regime change can now reach an end game with him back in the country. Violence may spike with the ebb and flow of his political maneuvers, and oppositional military elements - Sadiq, Hamid and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar - are likely to increase their own operations. This situation becomes especially likely if Saleh accuses any of them of his attempted assassination, whose origins remain a public mystery. Delegation of power to his son, Ahmed, would push the revolution into overdrive and potentially into Libya-lite, where Saleh’s security apparatus must be hunted down but civil war is avoided.

The greatest challenge of all remains the transition through a democratic transformation - an obstacle that hasn’t changed since January.

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