Analysis / James M. Dorsey: Yemen’s Saleh plays cat and mouse with Saudis and US
Yemenis have little to celebrate on the republic’s 21st birthday as President Ali Abdullah Saleh blows hot and cold on a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement that would force him to resign.
Instead of cheering the unification in 1990 of north and south Yemen, Yemenis are protesting what they see as Mr. Saleh’s game of cat and mouse and a possible Saudi-engineered end to the crisis that they fear will stymie political and economic change.
Ironically, distrust of Saudi intentions may be the only thing that Mr. Saleh and his opponents agree on.
To many Yemenis, Mr. Saleh’s “in principle” acceptance of a GCC-mediated end to their country’s three-month old crisis sparked by mass anti-government protests threatens to be a repetition of the dashed hopes in the wake of the 1990 unification.
At the time, Yemen promised to be the odd man out in the Gulf: a full-fledged democracy in which a free press flourished, political parties proliferated, government restrictions were reduced to a minimum and free elections were held with universal suffrage.
Two decades later, Yemen is everything but a democracy.
Its immediate prospects are those of a failed state and a shattered economy. Many question whether Mr. Saleh’s departure, after 33 years in office, if indeed he agrees to go, will end an era of autocracy, corruption and nepotism.
Mr. Saleh’s cat and mouse approach to the GCC deal inspires little confidence The president initially agreed to sign the deal in private on Sunday after opposition leaders inked it on Saturday. But in a last minute twist designed to at the very least buy time, if not back out of it for a second time, the president’s ruling party said that Mr. Saleh would only sign at a public ceremony in the presidential palace in the presence of hundreds of officials and opposition figures.
If Mr. Saleh’s delaying tactics raise questions about his sincerity, widespread unease with the agreement’s terms raise questions of whether the deal will stick. Under the agreement, Mr. Saleh would resign within 30 days rather than immediately. The agreement also grants him and his family immunity from prosecution, shielding him from being held accountable for alleged crimes committed during his rule.
Mr. Saleh’s delaying tactics as well as what happens if and when he resigns puts US President Barack Obama on the spot. After months of hesitating to call for his departure, Mr. Obama expressed support for the GGC-sponsored resolution. In the wake of his broad-ranging policy speech last week, in which he called for political and economic change across the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Obama will have to demonstrate to Yemenis that the United States is not just interested in the fight against Al Qaeda but also in supporting their political and economic aspirations.
This is all the more true after he cushioned his demand that Mr. Saleh complies with the terms of the GCC proposal by referring to the president as a friend of the United States. Many Yemenis read Mr. Obama’s statement as saying that in line with their perception of Saudi intentions, Mr. Obama wants to see Mr. Saleh go but not a change of regime that could result in weakened Yemeni resolve to fight Islamist militants.
To counter those perceptions, Mr. Obama will have to demonstrate that he was sincere in his call for a real reform across the region, including Yemen, by helping the country build truly democratic institutions. That could put Mr. Obama at odds with Saudi Arabia if the kingdom indeed is reluctant to see a Western-style democracy flourish in the country.
Fears that Yemenis are about to be deprived again of an opportunity to build a democratic society are reflected in the continuing protests on the streets of Sana’a. Protesters say they have little faith that Saudi Arabia will allow Mr. Saleh’s departure to open the door to real political and economic change. They see Saudi Arabia as positioning itself as a power seeking to salvage the status quo rather than accommodate demands for real change in the region.
In a speech on Saturday, Mr. Saleh played to US fears that his successor would be less inclined to go after Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and may not give the US the leeway it had under his presidency to attack the militants with drones. Mr. Saleh charged that the GCC-sponsored agreement was “a mere coup operation” and that his departure would enable AQAP to gain control of parts of the country.
Mr. Saleh has every reason to exaggerate the AQAP threat. Nonetheless, to keep a post-Saleh government engaged in the fight against the militants, Mr. Obama will have to also focus on the issues that are foremost on the minds of a majority Yemenis. Those issues do not include Islamic militancy. Instead, Yemenis want to see their government moving effectively to guarantees greater freedom, reduce poverty and create jobs and economic opportunity.
To do so, Mr. Obama will have to increase civil society and economic assistance to Yemen and compliment US military, security, intelligence and counterterrorism personnel already in Yemen with experts who can help a new Yemeni government rebuild the country’s fractured society and failing economy. With other words, the name of the game in a post-Saleh Yemen will be soft rather than hard power.
(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])