"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Salih's Options

Tastefully-named regular comment contributor oneilluiuc, who may or may not be closely related to your blogger (hint: may) asks this, regarding my "time for Mubarak to go" post:

oneilluiuc said...
Wow. Bold assessment. But reading your next post, you DON'T want the same thing in Yemen (yet?). I know the situations are different, but can you see a situation where you feel the same about Salih?
I am not sure I'm there yet, but am very close.  As I said below, Salih is obviously watching Egypt very closely, and the government of Yemen is firmly behind Mubarak right now, for easily-divinable reasons.  Sure, they talk about stability and constitutions and other shaded lies, but in truth they are terrified of what is happening.  Tunisia was one thing; the heart of the Arab world is an entirely different matter.  They see these movements as a dread contagion that threatens everything they have worked for.  

But right now Salih has an opportunity to change Yemen for the better.  On Thursday he can either crack down and attempt to crush the protests, or he can use the time between then and now to offer legitimate concessions, including a pledge to not run again and to open up the process.  I know that is dreamy, since he has done so before, and there isn't much chance that people will believe him.   But the way I see it he has three options. 

1) Crack down.  This might work in the short term, but as has been observed, this genie is not going back in the bottle.   Any softly-held illusion of consensual government will be rent.  This matters everywhere, but in Yemen, with its history and traditions of negotiations and mediations, it is vitally important.  His circle will shrink, and there will be blood in the water.  He will be even more weakened, and it will just be a matter of time before another movement sweeps him away, or an ambitious general, promising to restore democracy, will greet him with a plane ticket or a bullet. 

2) Find a middle ground.  Cling to power by letting it go, with no chance at re-election.  Expand the government to include opposition leaders.  Concede on JMP demands for the parliamentary elections; bend over backwards to ensure that they are relatively free.   This way he can go out on what can be spun on his own terms, and bequeath to the country a legacy of democracy, something no Arab leader has been able to do.   Of course, the power structure around him will be resistant to this.  The pie in Yemen is shrinking, so there is less will to share it.    This is one of the most dangerous situations in the world- an entrenched and fat power structure growing thinner and being forced to divide the bounty into more and smaller slices.   But I think Salih can still control events, especially if he maneuvers himself to be behind- not leading, but following- the "will of the masses".  

3) This isn't really an option, but a possibility.  Be toppled by events spinning rapidly out of his control.  The question is: is this a good thing or a bad thing?   A Washington Examiner article looks at this question through the prism of AQAP.  Both experts they talk to, Bruce Reidel and AJG buddy Chris Boucek seem to agree that a toppled government would aid AQAP, and I also agree with that.  But it seems to me that Boucek has it correct when he talks about the need to "look beyond the al Qaeda presence in Yemen and focus on the 'bigger issues' of economic reform, corruption and malcontent among the civilian population in the Arab world."

As I've argued, stopping this generation of al-Qaeda is important, but focusing only on them ensures their successors.  It is a paradox, but if we want to have a long-term victory against violent extremism we sort of have to ignore them for this historical moment.   If we want to win in Yemen, we absolutely cannot be on the wrong side of history.   We can't fear his being toppled so much that we see Option 1 as a healthy outcome.  If a democratic revolution is suppressed, is there any question of who will get stronger?  Is it that surprising the Brotherhood is the strongest opposition group in Egypt? 

So, to answer your question, oneill: We're not quite there yet, but we have to be close.  We have to be willing to dump Salih if pulls a Mubarak.  I think encouraging option 2 is our safest move in the short and long-term, but that also doesn't come with any guarantees.  I do worry about what will happen in his absence, but we have to be willing to sacrifice the short-term. 

This is only political, and really only deals with the north.  Needless to say, this is shortsighted.  To talk about the future, you have to talk about the Southern Movement, the Houthi Rebellion, AQAP, the poverty, water, oil, and everything else.  I don't think though that anyone wanted to read a 25,000 word piece on a Sunday, and, also, I don't know what I think about all of this yet.  We'll be working on that throughout the week, leading up to Thursday.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear the thoughts of readers on all of this. 


  1. Somewhat tangential to your post, but hinted at in your rhetorical question about the Brotherhood's role in Egypt, I find it fascinating that the Brotherhood has apparently had precious little influence in this past week's events. It seems to me that they're more comfortable as an opposition movement, and now that opposition to Mubarak is coming from so many quarters, are missing their opportunity to position themselves as leaders in the near-term post-Mubarak future.

    Of course, I know that you don't have a crystal ball, and I recognize that I could well be wrong in my assessment of the Brotherhood's inability to take a leadership role in deposing Mubarak, but given the similarities (and differences) between the Brotherhood in Egypt and Islah in Yemen, do you see Yemen's Islamists also being sidelined, or would you expect them to take a more active role in unseating Saleh?

  2. Interesting question, Paul. I think that a main difference is that Islah is, of course, a legal party, and already involved in electoral politics (so are the Brotherhood, even though they exist in a strangely quasi-legal state which I'm not positive I understand). The Brotherhood has backed elBaradei, saying that they know the West is afraid of Islamists, and that they are willing to take a backseat. That might just be clever, but I think they are also canny politicians- hell, look how long they've survived. Islah is in a different place. I think they can be part of the push, but subsuming themselves under the JMP identity, so it doesn't seem like it is an Islamist thing.

    But even in saying that I think we have to be careful- Islah is an Islamic party, but not really an Islamist one. They have Islamists (and I think we're using the generally accepted, or at least understood, definition of that term), but those are just one part of the Islah spectrum. So I think they can take a role without making this seem like an Islamist takeover, or even an attempt.

    The biggest caveat though is something that Greg has argued, and something with which I agree- party politics aren't that important. They are just one layer of identity, and not a particularly important one in Yemen. I know in the US party politics are insanely important, to the point where holidays can be ruined by an R or a D, and that tends to kind of color our perceptions. As a political junkie, I know it is struggle to remind myself that it isn't the same elsewhere. I think the parties will attempt to ride the tiger, but I don't think they'll be able to control it, as it will be neither from nor about them.

    That rambling probably didn't answer your question. Apologies.