October 18, 2011

Engaging All Of Yemen’s Networks

Nobel Laureate Tawakol Karman will soon land in New York City to oversee the UN Security Council’s debate over her country. Influence would be a more accurate term, but one that depends on whether the UN responds to her demands. In a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Karman pleaded for the international community to support her Yemeni brothers and sisters on their quest for democracy and universal rights. She also demanded an ICC warrant for Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s entrenched strongman of 33 years.

Contrary to the ideals of international law, the UNSC’s proposed resolution would offer Saleh’s regime a pass for mass human rights abuses. The document is intentionally contradictory, stressing in point four “that all those responsible for human rights violations and abuses should be held accountable.” The next point calls for Saleh to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative, which contains an immunity clause. No one is sure whether UN law will supersede GCC law or if the GCC is using the UN to legalize immunity, since Yemen isn’t a member of the bloc.

The UN’s human rights office has warned the UNSC against violating its own law.

Less confusing is the international community’s position towards Yemen - the U.S., EU, Saudi Arabia and China all favor the GCC proposal. Yemen’s popular revolutionaries reject the initiative and a bias UNSC resolution as a flagrant violation of national and international law. The international community, for a variety of reasons, has engaged all the wrong points of Yemen’s uprising. As the dominant powers, Washington and Riyadh remain directly connected with Saleh’s network and have aided in his survival in order to maintain their own influence, either by denying a revolution outright or managing a “transition.” This strategy has necessitated working with Yemen’s political opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), to co-opt the spontaneous popular uprising.

The basic reality is that Washington and Riyadh would have lost too much control in the event of Saleh’s immediate collapse. Needing an exit strategy to Yemen’s revolution, Saleh’s party and the JMP were offered a “unity” council to preserve influence.

Yemen’s revolutionaries harbor few illusions of their big brother to the north. Some expected worse - a Bahrain-style invasion. America's light, on the other hand, miraculously peered through Yemen’s darkness during the revolution’s early stage. Yemenis hosts one of the world’s most open Muslim societies and, despite their suspicions of the West, expected America to play a positive influence. Unfortunately their doubts proved too true, as U.S. and Saudi policy inseparably entangled to the point of revulsion, and both parties now stand accuse of encouraging Saleh’s bloody crackdown. While President Barack Obama hailed Karman as an “extraordinary woman,” he hasn’t commented on her revolution in a month.

Instead U.S. officials feverishly meet with Yemeni officials behind their curtains, reinforcing America’s imperialism and support for Saleh. The White House has issued no reaction to weeks of ongoing violence, and only today did the State Department briefly address the UNSC’s activity (over a week into the debate). Spokesman Mark Toner had no update on the UNSC, except to urge Saleh to sign the GCC initiative and “move forward on a track towards a democratic transition.” Because both parties are attempting to devolve Yemen’s revolution into a political crisis, months of failure haven’t stopped the international community from favoring the JMP over the civil movement.

This arrangement offers a primary reason to distrust any resolution that marginalizes Yemen’s popular protesters.

Many U.S. analysts continue to support the GCC initiative as the "only" exit to civil war. Jeb Boone, editor of the Yemeni Times, generally has a grip on the situation, but his latest report to the Christian Science Monitor, squarely backed the flawed negotiations between Saleh’s regime and the JMP. Most of Boone’s tactical suggests are sound: U.S. diplomacy requires a dramatic overhaul in rural Yemen. Officials must learn the local nuances, speak the local language and know the local networks to supplement Washington’s aerial view with ground vision.

“Yemen’s tribes will play a pivotal role in the future of the country,” Boone concludes. “It is in America’s best interest to develop relationships with the tribes and encourage them to negotiate over the country’s future. Diplomats are going to have to literally get dirty to make inroads in Yemen, whether in resolving the government crisis, or countering AQAP.”

However engaging Yemen’s tribal network is only one piece of a larger solution. The revolution’s overall network is composed of four blocs: the JMP, youth/civil movement, northern Houthis and secessionist-minded Southern Movement. Regardless of their objectives, both Yemen’s internal networks and the international community must engage every bloc in order to stabilize the country. The youth movement has admittedly failed to coordinate Yemen’s grand network, but so has every other bloc.

Each of Yemen’s individual networks is similar in strength, possessing abilities and resources that the others lack. Thus unilateral engagement of the JMP is a primary error within U.S. policy. Yemen’s political opposition cannot be engaged without participation from the Houthis and SM, which is problematic given the mutual distrust between parties. One major example, defected general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, now sits in the JMP’s camp after leading Saleh’s offensive against the Houthis. Washington and Riyadh also isolated the JMP due to Saleh’s heightened antagonism against the Houthis and SM; U.S.-trained Yemeni forces were deployed in support of his campaigns.

Similarly, Yemen’s national network cannot be successfully engaged without connecting to the youth movement and wider civil uprising. Activists and youth leaders claim to have limited input at best; several leading coalitions have no contact with U.S. officials. These groups are led by capable individuals with a deep passion for civil rights. Boone writes, “It may be tempting to believe that the future of Yemen lies not with the tribes, but with the youthful protesters in Sanaa who are in their ninth month of an inconclusive revolution.”

His conclusion, though, is that, “Yemen’s independent youth have yet to demonstrate that they are capable of leading the country into a post-Saleh era of democracy. Lacking a specific plan for government or transition, the independent youth often release series of demands that are platitudinal and idealistic, proving themselves, thus far, to be ill-equipped to handle a transition of power, let alone a new Yemen.”

The popular coalitions have released several transitional plans that copy the GCC and UNSC’s numerical outline. They just happen to contain different points, such as Saleh’s immediate resignation and trial, a popularly-approved transitional council inclusive of all political networks, and a more realistic election schedule. Protesters do not spurn the support of Yemen’s tribes, but they do demand an equal partnership with the political opposition. Their organization would also improve if Saleh’s regime, the JMP and international community weren’t coordinating to undermine their influence.

Former U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine has supported the GCC initiative throughout Yemen’s revolution, citing the standard argument of working with the opposition. She also inadvertently explained why the youth movement should be engaged as a counterweight to the JMP. Speaking at Robertson Hall at Woodrow Wilson School, Bodine (and Washington) hoped that the JMP “would lead to a coherent opposition to drive reforms,” but the opposition’s leaders have “cancelled each other out.” Yemen’s tribes hold undeniable power and must be engaged, but the JMP’s fractured head doesn’t represent the most rational actor to negotiate with.

“It’s not a lack of leaders, but too many,” Bodine accurately observed. “Besides overthrowing Saleh, they have no common agendas.”

Conversely, Bodine noted that Yemen’s revolution is “especially youthful,” with 50% under the age of 15. This iceberg has been avoided at all costs by Saleh’s regime, the JMP and the international community, a strategy with overt intentions to manipulate Yemen’s revolution. If the international community - America in particular - does seek a stable, democratic Yemen, its popular movement must be brought into the political framework. Empowering the youth opens a door to balancing Yemen’s opposition, and would ultimately increase its leverage to remove Saleh’s regime.

“I want to talk to the Obama administration," Karman revealed, "to get support for the Yemeni revolution."

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