By Mohamed El Mokhtar
The current stalemate in Yemen is not politically sustainable. The intransigence of the incumbent president/autocrat, Abdallah Saleh, is causing an unprecedented political standstill. Such paralysis is sucking up the energy of the whole country and creating an atmosphere of near-anarchy. And the responsibility of this mayhem lies squarely in the hands of the president given his lack of predisposition to seriously compromise or step-down.
Now the public administration is in shambles throughout the country. In effect, the already structurally fragile civil institutions are working far below their potential capacity, hence the limited access everywhere to public services or lack thereof. These constraining limitations in the delivery of vital services, deliberately engineered by the ruling regime, are exacting a high cost on ordinary citizens as evidenced by the scarcity of fuel, water, electricity and other basic commodities.
In spite of all this, the Yemeni people have shown a rare determination, in recent months, in continuing the peaceful fight for their human rights. Indeed, they have been able, owing to their courage, to show the whole world how they truly stand for their dignity. Their extraordinary poise and stunning patience have turned upside-down many deep-seated stereotypes and ill-conceived ideas about Arabs and Muslims.
In fact, the peaceful nature of their protest underscores, despite the many provocations of the government, the strong resolve of Yemenis to recover their legitimate civil rights without resorting to indiscriminate violence or illegal means. As epitomized in the slogan Silmeeya Ila Neehaya (peaceful till the end!), such attitude is meaningful in many respects. This collective sense of self-control is all the more admirable that Yemen is probably per capita the most heavily-armed country in the world. The incident involving the reaction of the tribal leader El Ahmar remains a parenthesis in the broader scale of things.
Thus, the Yemeni general revolt has taught us an invaluable lesson about the inaccuracy of anthropological presumptions and empirically unfounded sociological extrapolations of complacent scholarship. It is a good epistemological example revealing the limitations and lack of rigor of certain supposedly scientific tools of normative evaluation prevailing in many Western academic circles and think-tanks.
The Yemeni awakening clearly showcased that even in a land riven with sectarianism, tribalism and regionalism, people can still unite for a common ground; they are predisposed to transcend their narrow sense of identity provided they can identify with a common ideal. Therefore, when a national ideal is clearly defined or seems coherent to the majority, the solidarity of esprit de corps (El Assabiya) becomes ipso facto secondary. These circumstances, those parochial sensitivities become more or less irrelevant; in other words, they don’t constitute anymore an obstacle to democratic transformation.
Furthermore, this ongoing popular revolution proves once again that the murderous ideology advocated by AL Qeada and its like, contrary to certain Orientalist assumptions, doesn’t even remotely attract or inspire the majority of young Arabs. On the contrary, such deviationism, with the exception of few suicidal desperados bent on wreaking havoc, was and still is fortunately a repugnant cult to the eyes of the overwhelming majority. And that is what really matters to debunk prejudice and stereotypes.
Without downplaying the importance of an educated urban middle class to the anchorage of democracy, it is important to draw the following lesson from the citizen revolt in Yemen: the absence of a large middle class, or the prevalence of poverty, isn’t necessarily a major hurdle to political awakening. Indeed, if in a poverty-stricken country like Yemen people are so keen in exercising their political rights, this proves well that political consciousness isn’t the exclusive prerogative of a given social class.
Over the course of many decades, Abdellah Saleh has transformed what could have been a model of success in the Middle East into a near failed state. Under his prolonged reign the country became the very prototype of an Arab basket case.
Yet Yemen does not suffer from a shortage of resources or lack of manpower. Unlike the other countries of the Gulf, the country does have a potential other than oil. First of all Yemen has an important human capital in an otherwise under-populated region; it’s an ancient land endowed with a traditionally entrepreneurial merchant class; it has a rich cultural heritage, an old and successful diaspora; and enjoys a central geographic position in a major geostrategic zone.
But rather than utilizing those assets to build a functioning modern state, Abdellah Saleh has instead subverted the process of nation-building to fit his desire to stay in power. To do so he didn’t hesitate to pit regions against regions or cynically exploit sectarian tension or profiteering from the US and other Western nations in their fight against radical Muslims by over-blowing the threat of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Worse, he cultivated corruption to unparalleled levels. To get a sense of the depth of nepotism under his ruling, these are few illustrative, albeit partial, examples:
• The Republican Guard is headed by Colonel Ahmed Ali Abdallah Saleh, the eldest son of the president.
• The deputy Chairman of the National Security Organization is Colonel Amar Mohamed Abdallah Saleh (a nephew)
• The Commander of the Security Central Forces is Colonel Yahaya Mohamed Abdellah Saleh (another nephew) and an important stakeholder in Almas Company for Petroleum Services and a Chinese cable company: Huaiwai.
• The president half brother Ali Saleh El Ahmar commands the Air force and is a stakeholder in the Hashdi Petroleum Company.
These are just few samples, for the domain of the president’s relatives spans all sorts of activities. From high offices in public sectors to important stakes in the private (oil companies, agriculture, telecommunications…), their monopolistic hegemony has no limit. But Saleh’s grip in power couldn’t have lasted so long without outside help.
The attitude of the Saudis has seldom been helpful toward their neighbors. With the exception of Qatar perhaps, the GCC’s investments have been until recently almost inexistent. They speak now of the need of a stable and united Yemen but have lobbied major oil companies not so long ago to prevent them from exploring or exploiting the country’s oil fields. They currently impose a draconian regime of visas entry to Yemeni citizens in dire need of work.
Instead of mediating between the government and the Houthis during their recent insurrection, they one-sidedly chose to support Saleh’s ill-advised strategy and hence helped entice sectarian tensions and the potential for instability. Because of the popular opposition to the first Gulf war, they financially squeezed Yemen for years halting almost all types of investments in the country; and that was in addition to expelling hundreds of thousands of Yemeni citizens from the Kingdom as a cynical retribution to the position of their government. Sudanese, Palestinians and Mauritanians suffered the same ordeal as did countless others Arabs.
Today the Saudis play an ambiguous ambivalence in the Yemeni crisis: on the one hand they call for a political smooth transition and on the other hand they wittingly encourage President Saleh to persist in his stubborn intransigence by providing him with the financial and military means to suppress the ongoing large scale citizen revolt.
Assuredly, the last thing the Al Saud royal dynasty wants to see at its doorsteps is an Arab people capable of freely expressing its will through the democratic mechanism of self-determination. In fact, there is no greater threat for a divinely-inspired monarchy than the sovereign power of the vox populi.
The security aid provided to Saleh by the US has also boosted his resilience and is now being used to delay political transition in Yemen.
Although the president Saleh has been supposedly helpful in providing the US with a launching base for its war against AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula), such support comes with a price; it is a double-edged sword used by the autocratic regime of Sana’a to crack down on political opponents or rivals. By over-blowing the threat of Al Qaeda, he was able to divert the aid provided to supposedly fight terrorism to achieve personal political goals.
Thus, he relied on the US support to suppress the Houthi insurrection, fight the Southern movement or settle old score with rival tribal factions. And that in turn helped exacerbate the problems at the source of the current instability.
The very timid appeals from Washington for Saleh to step down lacked the determination and forcefulness of the White house’s demands for allies like Ben Ali or Mubarak to step down following the popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.
Moreover, the over-reliance on security cooperation through the use of warplanes and drones attacks has greatly alienated popular support and hence made matters a lot worse. The duplication of the failed strategy employed in Pakistan will only inflame the situation and make the ground more fertile for extremism and radicalization. In the light of the recent changes taken place in the Arab World, a review of Washington’s policy toward the region is urgently needed. Such change is in the interest of Americans and the region as a whole.
The most important step the US can take, in this regard, is to support the advent of an independent and viable Palestinian state. There is no doubt that this will do more for the long term geostrategic interests and national security of the US than all the drone attacks in Pakistan and the Middle East and all the expensive CIA covert operations around the world.
– Mohamed El Mokhtar Sidi Haiba is a political analyst. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.