"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Monday, January 31, 2011

Suleiman The Something

I just got off the phone with my friend in Cairo, who says that things on the streets are still very rough, and that his neighborhood watch group has formed a checkpoint to inspect the trunks of cars going through.   This is a scene that is not unique to his area, either, as citizens are filling the vacuum of the police (who might be better in their absence than presence).  

His sense- and this is someone I trust implicitly as an analyst and a friend- is that if Mubarak goes away and turns things over to the new Veep Omar Suleiman, with Constitutionally-mandated promises to have elections in 60 days, the protestors will be appeased (assuming he keeps his promise).  My sense was that Suleiman is too tied to to present to even be a transition to the future, but I am coming around.  This isn't all about Mubarak, but he is the main symbol.

I think in some ways this would be the best option, and is probably the one that the administration is pushing (and my friend says they better be pushing something, soon, without Mubarak, as opinion is turning against America).   Suleiman is old and might not want to win an election, and probably couldn't, either, without the game being rigged.  And a rigged game would start this all up again.   I think it might be troubling for Mohamed elBaradei to take over as transitional president and have to run an election campaign.  I think he is personally honest, but those dual roles in a time of crisis management might be too much to handle.  If he is just a transition figure, that hurts future politics, and if he is running for office, it hurts the present.

So overall, at least abstractly, Suleiman might be the best option.  But things aren't abstract, and I don't want to speculate too much on Egypt.  Third World Goes Forth has a post on Suleiman today, where he is called "...Hosni Mubarak’s right hand man: head of intelligence service, runner of secret prisons, compiler of blacklists, torturer-in-chief (although I’m not sure he ever got his own hands dirty; the first rule of succesful tyranny, at all levels, is that the really bad shit must always be delegated)."

So I turn the questions over thataway- 1) Would Suleiman be a decent transition figure that could at least calm the protestors, or are they so jazzed up at the power of freedom that they want to wipe away the old guard entirely, and 2) Would Suleiman be willing to be that intermediary?   I honestly don't know, and would love to hear the analysis of others. 

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. 

Mubarak Going Fourth

Third World Goes Forth  is back to blogging, and has a sharp take on why Mubarak might not leave in the fairly swift way that Ben Ali left in Tunisia.   Basically, he says that the power structure in Egypt is way too tied to Mubarak to let him leave, as they would all be swept away with him.

The people closest to him stand almost no chance of continuing in his absence, for they are too closely associated with the figurehead. And so whereas the Tunisian elite were happy to see Ben Ali go – well not happy, perhaps, but in a bad situation for them it was the best option – the Egyptian elite cannot afford to be without Mubarak, for then they too will lose everything. They have no option but to stand and fight, and I imagine they aren’t going to allow Mubarak to escape to a desert holiday home while they take all his flak.
I'm a big fan of this blog, and while it would a little hypocritical of me to criticize unexplained absence from blogging, I will say I'm glad it is back.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Yemen readies for "Day of Rage"

Meanwhile, back in Yemen...

Dozens of activists calling for the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president, have clashed with government supporters in Sanaa, the country's capital.
Plainclothes police also attacked the demonstrators, who marched to the Egyptian embassy in Sanaa on Saturday chanting "Ali, leave leave" and "Tunisia left, Egypt after it and Yemen in the coming future".
Small potatoes now, compared with Egypt, but Thursday the 3rd is shaping up to be a big day of protests.  The question is whether Salih will still try to respond peacefully and hope that he can outlast the anger until it dissipates- which I think would be a losing bet anyway- or if he will respond like Mubarak.  This is of course more dangerous in Yemen, where there are a lot of guns, as you may have heard.   This might be a clue. 

Tawakel Karman, a female activist who has led several protests in Sanaa during the past week, said that a member of the security forces in civilian clothes tried to attack her with a dagger and a shoe but was stopped by other protesters.
Of course, that is just one guy who might not have been following orders (and also, if you have a dagger wielding a shoe with the other hand just seems clumsy and superfluous.  I know the degrading aspect of it, but come on).   Things are happening so quickly in Cairo that Salih should be able to learn some lessons before Thursday. 

I would imagine he is going to spend the next 4 days offering to make huge concessions to attempt to take the steam out of any movement.  Nothing like resigning (though he might feint that way), but what he will see as enough.  If these are rejected, and their sincerity should of course be taken lightly, he will move to classify the protestors as enemies of "democracy and the state".   In that case, he might feel he has a free hand to break them. 

But if he is canny, he'll let them march and chant, and let them make the first move toward violence- or at least make it seem that way.   Salih doesn't want a day of rage to turn into days and nights of violence and fire, so he'll be wise not to overplay his hand.  But he isn't as nimble as he used to be, and is far more paranoid and closed off than before.  This will sound like shoddy analysis, but right now nothing will surprise me.  There are no guarantees. 

This is where the US can come in.   If we move against Mubarak, Salih will know that he is in a similar bind and that he can't count on us.  This will tie his hands even tighter, and maybe force him to offer concessions far greater than he would like.  See, I think that as much as Salih wants to be boss, and feels only he can run Yemen, I've always felt like there was a part of him who would love a legacy of being the first Arab leader in modern times to step down peacefully.  He still has that chance, even if it isn't entirely of his own volition.  That is what the US needs to urge him to do, appeal to that side, while keeping the stick of aid reduction in the forefront. 

I don't love the idea of Salih being gone.  I don't think that what comes next will be up to the insane challenges facing Yemen.   But times are different now.  Things have changed.  And while I've always felt his government being toppled would be a disaster, if there is a hint of democracy and inclusion even a weak government would be bolstered by legitimacy.   We do have an opportunity in Yemen that I don't think anyone honestly saw coming.  There were people who had more faith than I did, and I respect that, but I don't think the conditions were there.  The revolt that has wildfired across the region has created a new situation and new opportunities.   The US doesn't have the ability to control things, nor should it try, for both practical and moral reasons but it can use its influence to create a positive and almost unimaginable outcome.   Things won't be perfect, but for the first time in memory, there is space.  

Message from Cairo- Mubarak Strategy Endangering Americans; Time for Obama To Cut Him Off

I just got a call from a good friend of mine who is currently living in Cairo.  I'm omitting details for obvious reasons, but he lives in a somewhat upscale neighborhood with a large population of foreigners, especially Americans.

His building is being guarded by essentially a neighborhood watch, men with clubs.  He himself just has a stick with nails in it.  He feels somewhat safe because he thinks he can keep people from coming upstairs, but the people on the ground, Egyptians, who are courageously protecting the building and the more vulnerable foreigners, are exposed to gunfire, which he says has come from across the street.

This chaos is not the afterbirth of revolution; it is the direct result of Mubarak's last-gasp and desperately brutal plan to remain in power.  According to my friend, it is clear on the ground that Mubarak has pulled the police off the ground and has released criminals and thugs on the population, hoping that the violence will cause people to clamor for a police state.

This isn't going to work, I don't think, but its success doesn't matter.   It makes it clear that the US can no longer maintain neutrality.  This plan clearly is taking a hideous toll on the Egyptians, but it is also endangering the lives of US civilians.  We don't give a government 1.4 billion bones a year to put the lives of our citizens at risk.  It is time for the administration to move Mubarak out.

Neither I nor my friend want to make it seem like this is bad only because it is hurting Americans, potentially.  That is not the case.  Mubarak is acting like a savage and feral animal, and continuing to destroy the dreams and the lives of his people.   He has to go for that.  But this new strategy- this cruel and cynical and bloody strategy- has to be the final straw.  This is unendurable action for anyone.  Mubarak is no longer an ally.  That he is an enemy of his own people has been clear for a long time.  He is an enemy of what we stand for, and now an enemy of our people.  

The time for neutrality is over.  The US has to do what it can to help remove Mubarak (ok, not anything).  I think that the strategy of neutrality was a reasonable one for a while, but now, at the endgame, things are too dangerous.   It is far past time for Mubarak to go.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Inside the mind of power

I don't want to comment very much on Egypt, other than that it is damn exciting and scary.  I haven't really studied Egypt in a while, and can't offer the insight that others can.  But a few quick comments, which also apply obliquely to Yemen.

Power is a strange thing.  Obviously, it corrupts, as the fella said, but not just monetarily or even morally.  Too much power engenders an intellectual corruption, in the sense of decay, like a body in the weeds.  It leads to strange acts of rationality.  One of our problems with analysis is that we either expect people to behave by our rationale or expect them to be loony.  That's a mistake- people act in a rational manner, but only in one that makes sense to themselves.   It's like a drunk driver- he doesn't usually say "screw it!  I'm loaded- give me my keys so I can blow through some red lights!"  He more likely thinks "come on, I've only had 11 drinks, over like four hours, and I chewed on some ice for a minute.  I've driven far more drunk than this.  I can do it."   It is completely rational in his mind.

Mubarak right now is kind of like that drunk, and that is what makes him so dangerous.  What he is doing seems to him to make sense, even if for us it is crazy.  To illustrate that kind of insane rationality I've written a short play.

Protestors:  Mubarak has too much power!  We want freedom and democracy and to be part of the modern world!

Mubarak: OK, how about I cut off your internet and shut you off from the world, with like three fucking phone calls?   Will that shut you up?  Will that make you stop saying I have too much power?

Protestors: We're not sure you understand.  


That move made sense to him.  People using the Twitters and the Facebooks and maybe the Googles to meet up?  Let's shut everything off.  Even J-Date.  But there is no way- no way at all- that wouldn't inflame people even more.  It solidifies exactly what they were thinking.

Basically, when those in power forever are cornered, they will act like the wounded beasts they are.  And we cannot expect them to act in a way that comports with any reality other than their own.  If the US is going to play a positive role, it has to provide inducements for these leaders that fits their mindset, not just a call for freedom and the right to gather (though that has to be the public side of it).

This isn't to say I am totally on board right now with Salih being deposed.  I have no idea what will come next, and neither does anyone, if they are being honest.  But I can see a point in the very near future where we might have to accept some chaos inside of Yemen rather than being on the wrong side of history.  We've argued for a some time that Yemen policy has to be a long-term thing, and standing by a doomed regime will lose the future.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some contrarianism on Yemen protests; or: No, Daily Dish- not "NOW YEMEN?!?!"

I like Andrew Sullivan.  I like the way his sharp intellect blends with his outsized passions, even when that leads him down strange and uncomfortable paths.  And while I know he is sick this week, and not blogging at The Daily Dish , it sill matches his personality.   And they are very excited about the Arab youth in revolt, having covered Tunisia and now devoting a lot of coverage to Egypt.  I was wondering when they were going to get to Yemen, and they have today, starting with a post titled "Now Yemen?!".  The gobsmacked punctuation is, of course, sic.

This is going to sound needlessly mulish given my blogging the last couple of days, but I think the shock and surprise, and, most importantly, the "now" is misleading.  There is no doubt that the protests in the capital are inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, and they are exciting and breathtaking.  They fit the narrative, as I was saying below.   It is impossible to unlink them from what is happening elsewhere.

But it is also important not to link them too closely.   This isn't just a wave of millenials standing up together, it is separate waves of youth standing up against similar, but very different things.  I am aware that sounds patronizingly obvious, but sometimes that needs to be pointed out when things are exciting.

It is like this: if I want to start a movement to get the Bears' coach fired (which I don't), and you want to start a movement to get the Redskins coach fired (which: I don't care), we can talk and commiserate and feel the intoxicating rush of fan power- we have the same goals and dreams.  But we're not actually connected.   We're going up against different power structures* and have to use different tactics to achieve similar but disparate dreams.

Mubarak falling would be different than Salih falling, and both are different than Ben Ali.  Conflation here is dangerous.   Here's why: it tries to create a new historical situation instead of a continuation of old and separate histories.   I am aware that we like to lump these things together, and they are emotively similar, but even 1989 had vast differences.  The revolutions were wildly different in Poland and Germany, to say nothing of Romania.   Every country has to be treated individually, or else we can make some very bad decisions.

That's where the "now" comes in.  The protests in San'a are new- though have of course been brewing (not that anyone is claiming otherwise)- but protests in Yemen are not.  The rush of university students in the street is an undeniable drug, but breathless coverage runs the risk of ignoring or even completely conflating them with the Southern Movement.   These are different protests.  I have said that it would be great if we could tie them together, but it can't be an artificial process.  It would have to come from finding common ground and enormous amounts of compromise.   I do believe that just as language creates action, coverage influences policy.   We have to be sure that in hoping for another year of miracles, we don't push things down the wrong path, something that would be easy to do.  The Southern Movement is calling for secession, and, whether you think that is a good idea or not, that makes them literally the enemies of the state (which in this context is not a moral judgement).  If we tie the movements together, it could make it easy for Salih to "other" them (to borrow Will's neat verbing).

This isn't easy to write.  Like Sullivan, I like to get excited.  And this is exciting.  But caution needs to be the buzzword, or else those brave kids could have something far worse than their heads shattered- their dreams demolished.

*I would say my Bears are like the Arab autocracies- old and tired with occasional fits of passion.  The Skins are a North Korean-esque loonocracy.

More on Protests

Nasser Arrabyee (who is also quoted in today's Times) gives the lowdown on the today's rallies, both pro-and-anti Salih.    Nasser talks about how there hasn't been much in the way of violence, with security forces showing both strength and restraint- a good sign that could be interpreted many different ways, depending on how you lean.   He also wryly points out that the two sides have chants that are almost diametrically opposed to each other- yes/no on elections, constitutional "reform", and Salih- but found a meeting point on "yes to dialogue".   So far this has: not happened.

In the comment section in the post below, our buddy Will at the Yemen Peace Project made some interesting points, so I am going to rescue them from that ghetto and yank 'em up here.  One important question he asked was, essentially, why would I think that the military would be reluctant to shoot the protestors, when they haven't shown that reluctance in the north or the south?  I meekly responded that it might be different in the capital, that at some point Salih won't be able to say the entire state is an enemy of the state.   Here is part of the response:

A sizable portion of the university population comes from elsewhere, especially Ta'iz (where there is and long has been plenty of anti-government animosity). It's quite possible that Salih can rhetorically "other" these treasonous students just as he does the Zaydi sadah (not that he invented anti-sayyid racism, but you get the idea). As you point out above, Yemen doesn't have Tunisia's educated middle class. If "Huthis"--many of whose families have been a part of the social fabric of the rural highlands for centuries--can be transformed in the state's propaganda into foreign agents, how hard could it be to turn poor, simple soldiers against uppity, westernized university brats?

I think this makes sense, but I think that regardless of who they are, there would be a psychic shock to seeing a police riot in the streets.  Not for much of the country, perhaps, but for the residents of San'a, the capital of the soul.   And I think Salih knows that.  This kind of dovetails with a point also made by Will.  "There may be hundreds rallying with Tawakul Karman, but there are hundreds of thousands minding their shops, shopping in the markets, cooking bread, driving cabs, going to school, and, of course, unemployed, who still have no interest in revolution."    

This is correct, of course.  "People power" revolutions are always exciting and heady, but they also contain only a small percentage of the people.  Maybe the represent the hopes and dreams of many more, but those many more are just minding their own business, so how can we say what is in their hearts?  It is not always accurate to say that the passion of the streets is representative, or that "the people have spoken" when a small but loud group comes in.  Being in the middle of that group, and surrounded by thousands of people who think the exact same way, is intoxicating, and you come to believe that there are only a small, entrenched few against you.   You can see this in everything from the awesome puppet-wielding Iraq-war protestors to the Constitutionally-confused Tea Party.*

And that is where police restraint comes in.  A dozen or so kids being mown down, beaten, dying in the streets, can have a way of making the rallies grow.   Truncheon-wielding riot cops right out of a Radiohead nightmare hitting students yelling slogans about elections has the possibility of turning fence-sitters one way.  I don't want to romanticize it; many will think they got what was coming to them.  But I think Salih is going to want to let this play out and hope a series of grand gestures can placate the mob, and then call the remaining protestors dead-enders.

And this is where the US can sort of come in.  Part of me wishes we could stand entirely with the students, but that can, of course, help their enemies.  I like the admin's strategy of standing with their rights, if not their goal of toppling Salih.  This puts Salih, like Mubarak, in a bind, and can help to force his hand.  He might have to give up some power and make large concessions in order to remain in the Presidential palace, or even alive.  One could see the an ambitious general thinking Salih has lost control and inducing him to leave, and while I don't think he would be killed, that possibility doesn't exactly go against the grain of Yemeni history.  So we have a possibility to help manuver Salih into letting go of some power while still being able to fight al-Qaeda, opening up in the near future the path toward an actual peaceful transfer of power (Mark Lynch thinks it will come out that the US played a behind-the-scene role in Tunisia).

I also don't want to overstate these protests- these fit the exciting new trend in the Middle East, and work nicely with the current narrative.  But what is happening in the South is still more important and explosive.  However, for the first time, some of Salih's enemies have similar rhetoric about democracy.  Linking the "three rebellions"- Houthi, Southern, and Qaeda- was a paranoid game.  These protests aren't really linked, but they aren't that far off either.   And here is a chance to institute real reforms that can also at least partially bring the restive south back into the fold, avoiding the chaos of total collapse.  This is about as likely as the Bears still winning the Super Bowl, but not impossible, either.  The next few weeks are crucial.   There is a chance for reform, for change, but a return to the status quo will be brief, and the next time it shatters will be even more violent.

*That seems like my best attempt at Broderian middle-splitting, but really, I just don't like loud people who think America is a police state.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Will he stay or will he go?

Obviously, the biggest question in Yemen right now is: will the protests work?   Will Ali Abdullah Salih, who so recently seemed to be ensuring the permanent continuation of his regime, go the way of Tunisia?  These are heady times in Yemen, and I don't think it is wise in such a fluid situation to make predictions.  So, a couple of thoughts.

1) Salih has shown himself in the past to be a master of manipulating discontent in order to deflect blame.  But I think this time he is reacting in a pretty clumsy and transparent matter.  The arrest of Tawkul Kamran, and her release, seemed pretty ham-handed.  Greg calls it a kidnapping, which shows again why he is the best.   Salih was playing by ancient rules, hoping an arrest could force negotiations.  He seemed to not understand they way she could easily turn into a martyr rather than a bargaining chip.

2) Salih has intoned several times that "Yemen is not Tunisia", probably a way of saying that Yemenis are more peaceful and won't overturn a leader outside of the ballot box, a strange take on history.  In doing this, he is trying to appeal to a sense of justice.  This is clever, but also a little blind- Tunisia is an inspiration, not a cautionary example (it could be the latter, depending on how things turn out, but revolutionary times are heady ones, and changing the present is more important than a potential messy future).

3) But then again, Yemen is not Tunisia.  Yemen doesn't have the same middle class or educational system of Tunisia (relatively speaking).   These are key ingredients in a successful revolution, or at least one that won't be followed by blood and the domination of a strongman.  

4) Greg also pointed this out, in mentioning that Salih has increased the pay for civil servants.  "Although one has to ask: if the important thing in Yemen is - as so many including myself believe - jobs, then how will raising the salaries of those with jobs satisfy those with no jobs?"  It won't, but I humbly don't think that is the point.  It isn't about appeasing the protestors.  As much as we like to believe that a concerted wave of protests can alone topple the government, it doesn't work that way.  The single key ingredient is the loyalty of the security forces.  These salary raises are a way of trying to buy that loyalty- indeed, he is raising the pay of the forces around $23 a month- not insignificant.

This will bring up the big question, assuming the protests continue (a big, but reasonable assumption): how much loyalty will this buy?  Money is important, but there will come a time when Salih might ask his men to really open fire on kids in the street.  The world has turned on whether or not soldiers can do this- one commander who refuses is enough to change everything.  And that is the most unpredictable factor in the world.   There are a million models and even more hypothesis about how this can go, but in the end Salih's survival will come down to the conscience of people whose names we might never learn.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


This Economist article has a brief little overview of recent AQAP attacks.   They are clearly stepping up, but so far, and somewhat to my surprise, they have yet to overstep their bounds.   These sentences kind of get at the heart of it.

But recent hit-and-run attacks on government forces and the greater care it is taking to avoid civilian casualties suggest cannier tactics, with lessons learnt from the experience of al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like them it is trying to weaken resolve by targeting the security forces on which the government depends.

While I agree with the second sentence, I think it also goes a little but further than that- they learned the lessons of Iraq and are avoiding the kind of mindless carnage that led to their eventual downfall.  We tend to bandy about words like "nihilism" and "psychopathic" when discussing al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist outfit.  To an extent these words work, at least in certain cases.  Zarqawi in Iraq was a bloodhungry criminal who used jihad to slake his urges.  But it is a mistake to think that all jihadis are like this.  In his excellent book, Talking to the Enemy, Scott Atran frequently uses the term "moral" to describe people who sign up for jihad, whether through Qaeda or independently.   This is a strange word, and strikes the ear as off, but it works.   There are principals, and a goal to be had, and something to fight for.  It is of course a backwards, atavistic goal, but it is there.    The more professional jihadis are moral in this sense, and that is what separates them from the merely criminal.   This is what we have in Yemen, with Nasir al-Wuhayshi.  And that is what makes him so damn dangerous. 

Think "moral" in the sense that Woody Harrelson's character uses it to describe Chighur's character in No Country for Old Men.  I can't find a video that shows it, but you all remember, right?

There is a lot more to say about this, and is something I am working on.  

In the meantime!  I'll be on the Peter Dominick show this afternoon at 5EST talking about the chance for reform in Yemen, dovetailing off the Secretary's remarks.  

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I mentioned below an article on Zaydi revivalism, but there was no working link.  With the author's permission, printed below the jump is the text of James R. King's "A Marginalized Religious Community in Yemen Enjoys a Revival", printed in the Jan/Feb issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Salih Goes All-In

I'm still muddling through President Salih's endgame in essentially announcing a bid to be President For Life (abolishing term limits).  Greg has all the specifics of the recent election moves.

Obviously, the immediate game is to remain in power.  Let's not overthink this.  But why, exactly?  And don't just say "because power is fucking awesome", even though it is.  I think that might be underthinking it.   What are Salih's goals, and how will this help accomplish them?  Those are the questions we need to ask.

I was initially writing a list of different interpretations- "Cynical" "Idealistic" "Pragmatic" etc, but found that the categories kept sliding into each other.   Salih is neither misguided but benevolent statesman nor is he a bloodlust-filled tyrannical monster.  His biggest achievement in office, what he wanted his legacy to be, was the unification of North and South Yemen.  That was a longtime dream, and in his mind, and to a large extent in truth, he accomplished it.   He absorbed a chaotic and crumbling south, and when the traitorous southern leadership maneuvered to back out, he was the one who saved the country.  Sure, he had to bring in some unsavory elements, and some eggs go broken, but that is what leaders do.  Right?

Lincoln-esque, one might say.  Not me, but someone.

So, then: unity must be preserved.  And if there is an election with his unpopular son or murderous generals against maybe Hamid al-Ahmar and a disorganized crew of Southerners, with boycotts and bombings everywhere, unity doesn't have a chance.  Elections are the end result of democracy, not the beginning.  For Salih, in his mind, he is the only one who can really win decisively- the old master of alliance-building and survival is going to give it one last go.  He is tinkering with the Constitution at the same time there have been a raft of prisoner releases, both in the north and the south.  I think Salih sees an opening to maintain his rule and settle things down over the next term, so that he can pass it on as planned.

Like I said, this is pretty muddled.  But everything is muddled, mixed up.  I've argued before that Salih sees himself as the one man who can deliver peace and unity, no matter the cost.  This is megalomania, but there is an element of sadness and even blinkered decency to it, much like Yoweri Museveni or even old Paul Kagame.   Thinking you are the only one who can hold the country together shows vast egotism, but it also can't exist without the desire to hold the country together.  And, to be fair, unless things change radically, very quickly, I do think elections will be a disaster, a hardening of schisms.

That said, I still don't know exactly what I make of this move, or what I think the US response should be.  I am getting a little tired of saying "well, we can't interfere with everything, perfect enemy of good, etc", but my weariness doesn't make it untrue.  Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Zaydis and Boats for Hire

James King has an interesting article on the historic roots of Zaydi revivalism and their forays into politics.  It is a good look at who the Zaydis are outside of the Huthi rebellion, which understandably but unfortunately takes up all the analytical oxygen.  The rebellion has, of course, its roots in history, both near and distant, and King does a fine job of elucidating them.  A link will hopefully be forthcoming.  Sorry for the tease.  If I can't get a link I'll try to break it down more.

A big story today will be Margaret Coker's WSJ piece about how Yemeni officials are leasing their (largely US-trained and funded) Coast Guard as private security for shipping firms.  I had previously talked about this when Ellen Knickmeyer wrote about it for Foreign Policy in November (link also contains a further link to a Ginny Hill/Sally Healy piece).   Here is what I wrote about it then, in a bit of contrariness seemingly designed to make Slate pay attention.

This is a pretty good revenue stream for Yemen, and it isn't as if they are distributing their navy to far-flung shores while ignoring home: piracy and smuggling are issues in Yemen, and this can help the navy become more professional and better-trained.  As Knickmeyer points out, there is a lot of potential for corruption here, of course, but I don't have much of a problem with that.  For one thing, this isn't money that would otherwise be going elsewhere- it isn't aid that is being funneled into the pockets of well-connected cousins.  It is an outside and independent revenue-generating operation.  Yes, it would be better if one thought the money raised could dig wells and irrigation channels, but that is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I still believe that, although "revenue stream for Yemen" is probably a little naive.  "For very specific Yemenis" would probably be closer, especially if you're not into the whole brevity thing.   Still, I don't think this in and of itself should be enough to make the US re-evaluate aid.  In any aid endeavor, there are going to be people making money.   That sucks, but it is inevitable.  The important thing is to make sure that most of the money goes where it should, and that aid distribution doesn't backfire and make things worse.  It will get worse if our money and weapons are used, as they have been, to fight the Huthis or the Southern Movement.   It won't get worse if they are used to fight pirates and smugglers, even if the mechanism for them doing so is a bit shady.

Basically, pirates and smugglers (and terrorists) help to make insurance rates in Aden exorbitant, and this  deprives Yemen of money.  If there is going to be any kind of solution, a revitalized and viable Port of Aden is an absolute necessity.  Obviously, I wish that there would be more professionalism, but even if there isn't, building confidence for shipping companies can only help Yemen in the long-run.   All corruption is bad, but stamping all of it out is a fool's errand, and if the end result is positive we shouldn't faint dead away at its smell.