"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No Party Time in Yemen

Before I get to this, in a post below I asked what we should be calling the people in the street- demonstrators? protestors? revolutionaires?- and Anonymous responded with this, which I find delightful.

My comrades have been calling them the antis and the pros (especially as the pros are being paid for their demonstrating).

That sounds good to me. 

So, then, I want to point you to this article by Nasser Arrabyee, which gives a great outline of what is happening over there- and I think everyone feels we are a day or to away from something very big going down.  It is boiling, now, with martyrs.  A lot, I think, depends on the tribes.  Greg has talked about this- tribes are a lot more important than parties, and it looks like Hamid al-Ahmar, who has been fueding with Saleh, is poised to attempt to take leadership of this.   As Nasser says:

Armed tribesmen loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh were there to protect the pro-government demonstrators and armed tribesmen loyal to Hamid and Hussein Al Al Ahmar were there to protect the anti-Saleh demonstrators, according to eyewitnesses.

This is an old conflict now spilling into the streets.  This is what is most important to keep an eye on.  I think the JMP is going to quickly lose a lot of its relevance, even though overlapping loyalties will give it the illusion of control.   There is a lot more to say about the tribes, and I want to get to that this afternoon, but right now I am at a high school talking about the Middle East.  If anyone reading happens to go to Libertyville High School, feel free to see me 5th period.   I will say that some of the questions I got 1st period were considerably more insightful than things I've seen in the media.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


In an excellent post, Will at the Yemen Peace Project reminds us of the importance of Taizz.

It’s well worth focusing on one point in the above paragraph: Ta‘iz seems to be, at least in terms of popular support, the real center of this new movement for change. This is not surprising when considered in historical context. Ta‘iz has always been the intellectual center of Yemen (especially in the minds of Ta‘izis), and the heart of nearly every progressive or revolutionary movement in modern history. During the twin revolutions of the 1960s, when the South threw off the yoke of British imperialism and northern republicans overthrew a monarchy, Ta‘iz was a base for both movements and the conduit of fighters who flowed from one war to the other. In fact I would argue that if President Saleh were serious about Yemeni unity, he would move the capital to Ta‘iz, but that’s a topic for another post.

This is a great point.  In the west, we tend to focus on the capital (and I include myself firmly in that "we"), but that isn't always how it plays out.  This is something some, though not enough, people have been saying.  We're kind of viewing these things as if they are on screen, with a reverse teleology: of course they are going to work out!  This is happening; it will happen.   And we want to fit it into a neat storyline.  But it most likely isn't going to shake out that way.  Hopefully, the administration will have more patience than I suspect the media will.  The lamestream media!  

Oh, sorry: I forgot that I'm not aspiring to be a seven-year-old. 

Anyway, read Will's whole piece.  It makes a lot of interesting and crucial points. 

Huthi Support, and the South

Greg- who's been on a Kerouak-like tear the last 24 hours, though presumably without the uppers- briefly parses Abd al-Malik al-Huthi's declaration of support for the demonstrations around the country.

Does this mean the Huthis, who have generally been good at following the various cease-fire agreements, suddenly break the latest one in the hopes that the combined pressure of different centers can force Salih's regime to crack? I don't know, but I doubt it.  So what impact, if any, does moral support from the Huthis count for? 

He then says that they are probably waiting to see which way the wind blows (he thinks that there has to be a make or break moment coming soon).   While I think this is probably accurate, and I agree that they aren't likely to break a cease-fire, I don't think they have to for the "combined pressure" front to work.  

This is a boon for the Huthis.  The government cannot have its attention everywhere, and this allows them more time to regroup in case Salih emerges victorious and even more angry than before.  Ideally, for the Huthis, the Salih government is toppled and is replaced by either a weak leader in control of San'a and maybe Taizz, or by nothing at all.  In either case, they get what they want, which is a return to autonomy (some might argue they want a return to the Imamate; others that they'll just let Iran carve out a piece of the country.  Both fun and exciting theories, but probably best left to fantasy-land.) (Edit: the above link is an interesting article; I'm just being needlessly snarky about the Iran connection)

Right now the Huthis don't have to do anything.  The South seems like it is on the verge of exploding- the situation is probably far more tense there than in San'a, and maybe in Taizz.  There is certainly a longer history and worse memories, as well as a relatively more coherent political program.  Between the major cities of the "north" and the Southern Movement, as well as AQAP, who haven't gone away but seem a lot less relevant (for now), there are enough stressors to, if not knock Salih off, at least distract him. 

So, then: the South.  For years this has been the biggest issue, and still is.  It is wrong to say that they are inspired by the Tunisia and Egypt; they have been at this for years.  Where the inspiration might come in is the suddenly visible brass ring of success.  An emboldened opposition and harried Salih might push Yemen to the breaking point, and the dream of seceding could be within reach.  I think right now they are clearly separate from the protests in San'a and Taizz, even if they echo each other, with the calls for democracy and a chance at a decent life.  But for now in the South it is still secession. 

So, then, this is a question.  This is not policy advice or a cocksure guarantee, but a barely-formed thought.  Stipulating that if the south goes, Yemen as a centralized state will no longer be viable (which I agree with), and given that it isn't in US interests for that to happen, do we see an opportunity here?  Would the Southern Movement be placated, or at least temporarily appeased, if Salih was replaced with a promise of democracy?    Is that the only chance to hold the country together?  And, if so, should the US and the West throw their weight behind the demonstrators before it is too late?  Or is that way too big of a gamble?   And even if that is a possible course, do we have the skill or the means to pull it off?  I am in the camp that America can't do everything it wants, both morally and practically- there is a limit to our power and influence.   Even with aid, I am doubtful that we can ease Salih out, but it isn't impossible.  I fear that in this scenario our best way to do so is through the army, whose taking of power, even if it comes with hand-over-the-heart guarantees of just being transitional, won't exactly be met with acceptance in the south.   So what should be the play? 

More updates from the Ground

I just found this blog, which is kind of embarrassing*- An American Southerner in the Imam's Mafraj.   It is run by Jeb Boone, managing editor at the Yemen Times.  The Times, by the way, is decidedly not government-run, or even quasi-regime friendly, like The Observer.

In the current post, Boone talks about what is happening in San'a vs. what the media is reporting, and sees some differences.

Wednesday, Feb. 16: A few colleagues went to both old and new campuses of Sana’a University today and all of them said there were nothing but pro-government demos. Somehow, we end up with this gem form the AP. They claim that THOUSANDS of policemen blocked THOUSANDS of student protesters from Sana’a University from joining THOUSANDS of OTHER student protesters somewhere else in Sana’a. That’s rich…and impossible. This AP article firmly establishes the Yemeni alternate universe, somewhere in a galaxy far, far away. Maybe in that Yemen the Russian Club has reasonably priced drinks? No, impossible.
Keep in mind that this is only in Sana’a. I can confidently say that demonstrations in Taiz and Aden are quite large and the government is probably trying to contain them more violently. What is actually going on in Taiz is a mystery, I don’t know of any journalists at all working in that city. From the pictures I’ve seen and the things I’ve read earlier in the week, I can confidently say that if a revolution is going to take place in Yemen (its still probably won’t) its going to start in Taiz. By all (credible) accounts, the protests in Sana’a are winding down. There are plans for more protests next week. Look to those demonstrations to see if the grassroots movement is really going to take hold in Sana’a.
Now, in his twitter feed today, he says "Thousands riot in Sana'a. Things have changed in the capital." and that the "largest" demo turned into a "riot/all-out battle with Saleh supporters". 
 So it does look like things are changing, and maybe speeding up.   I don't know if Salih really thinks that repression is the way to go, but it is looking like this.  I know the spin can be that the counter-demonstrations are just a manifestation of the passion the people have for him, but these are always manipulated (which isn't to say he has zero support, of course).  
I would reckon that the lesson Salih took from Egypt is that you can't let these things gain a critical mass; that they have to be broken early.   Sadly, from his perspective, at least, this was the correct lesson.  But the "fighting back" is the interesting thing here.  The demonstrators aren't showing fear, and that could encourage more people to support them.  No matter where you are, there are very few who really root for the favorite.  
As a side note, something I've been struggling with the last couple of weeks is nomenclature.  "Demonstrators" or "protestors" sound weak and awkward.  "Revolutionaries" might be a bit huge, and is annoying to type.  "Revolters" is right out the window.  Anyone have any ideas? 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Inside Yemeni Politics

Nasser, as always, has the scoop.   Salih is trying to host a dialogue; the opposition sees it as nothing more than an attempt to circumvent inevitability and justice.

An opposition leader said Monday they refused the President Saleh’s initiative for resuming dialogue.

“We looked at it (Saleh’s initiative) as an attempt to rescue the regime not to rescue the nation,” Said Yasin Saeed Noman, the secretary general of the socialist party, the second largest opposition party after the Islamist party Islah, which leads the coalition.
And I think we are all looking forward to Glenn Beck using this as more proof of an insidious Communist/Jihadist alliance.  If anyone hears of him using Yemen as an example, don't send it to me.  I beg you not to send it to me.  I would spend 11 hours rebutting him in detail, which is a hair-tearingly futile waste of time.

Meanwhile, this paragraph could be pretty ominous.

The tribesmen were the first groups to come to the Presidential Palace. Since Saturday February 12th, 2011, President Saleh has been receiving tribal leaders from the areas around the capital Sana’a, mainly from his tribe, Hashed, the most influential tribe in Yemen.

Now, the Hashid have a lot of political weight, and through their late leader historical ties to Islah, and therefore to the JMP.  But as Greg accurately has reminded us, many times, party loyalty isn't a huge factor in Yemen.   Personal and tribal ties matter a lot more.   And the historical memory of tribesmen loyal to the leader runs marauding their way through a rebellious San'a run deep and fairly recent.   History doesn't always repeat itself, but encourages echoes, and it seems Salih is attempting to solidify himself in the ancient ways.

And the cars, and the bars, my Karman!*

As the violence in Yemen follows its usual pattern- demonstration, regime-oriented counter-demonstration, police violence against one side (guess which one!)-  The Washington Post has a nice little article on Tawkul Karman, the 32-yr-old woman who is emerging, against all odds, as the face and leader of Yemen's Egypt-style revolt against the reign of Ali Abdullah Salih.   It is hard to say if this is a good strategy, as it might further enrage loyalists and edge traditionalists further into Salih's camp, but those are just speculations, and anyway such calculation shouldn't get in the way of inspiration.  If nothing else- and it isn't nothing else- she shows just how different things have gotten in a gobsmackingly short amount of time.

Here's another illustration, a few paragraphs which should be dissected.

Two weeks ago, Karman's brother Tareq approached her. A well-known poet, he personally knew Saleh, and he was carrying a message from him.
This seems strange, but in Yemen this is often how things are done.  Family ties are enormously important, and Salih, like all Yemeni leaders beforehand, uses families and personal connections to send messages and to get things done.
"'You have to control your sister. Anyone who doesn't obey me must be killed,' he told my brother," said Karman. "This is the one threat I take seriously."
This part is a little strange, and seems crude, even for Salih.  Kidnapping or jailing other family members is usually the way to gain leverage.  If this is true- and I am not doubting her- than either Salih is completely losing all patience or else he finds the demonstrators completely beyond the pale, and doesn't think he has to deal with them in the usual way.  Either way, a very troubling sign for those wondering how Salih is going to play things.
In interviews, senior Yemeni officials and members of the ruling party said they were unaware of the allegations. They said Saleh would not make such a threat. But they also made clear that they considered Karman a troublemaker.
"She doesn't respect the president, the government or the law," said Sultan al-Barakani, a senior official in the ruling party. "She says bad things about the president."

This is kind of the nub of it, for me.   It seems like she respects the law, the spirit of what it is supposed to protect if not its oft-hypocritical letter.   But it is interesting what came first in this list and what is at tne end- the President.  See, you were allowed to criticize things, but not Ali Abdullah, directly (while that seems outlandishly backwards, it was actually pretty progressive for the neighborhood, another reason why Yemen is so fascinating).   Saying bad things about the President is shocking to this senior official, and a few weeks ago I might have joined in his shock, despite the threat to my monocles.

But things have changed.  Arab leaders are being laughed at and scorned, openly, by their people.  That barrier, the idea that there is a sacred cow you can't slaughter, has been broken.  To me this is the first step to real democracy.   I think the stunned reaction shows just how quickly things have changed.  And in an irreversible way.  Sure, the wall can be hastily rebuilt, the dam can be plugged, bandaids can be sloppily applied.  But the idea is out there.  Tawkul Karman gets it.  The greying and wearying and wearied bosses don't.

*Admittedly, this reference to Lolita makes no sense, and given Yemen's child bride problem might be distasteful and even Creepy, but it is what popped into my head, and I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.

Monday, February 14, 2011


I was joking about the art thing, but there are obvious signs that Salih isn't going to stand for unrest, and is willing to employ almost any tactic to quell it.  HRW has the scoop.

I think it is clear he is trying to keep the square clean and peaceful, and hopes that pushing the protests away from the periphery will allow him to keep it off the front pages.  This is narrowing down the strategy of violently quashing dissent outside of the capital but attempting to deal with it peacefully where all the cameras are.  But as the space gets smaller, Salih will get more and more restricted, and that can easily spell disaster.

More US Training for Yemeni Military

From the AP...

Faced with an increasingly alarming threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the U.S. military will begin a new training program with Yemen's counterterrorism unit so it can move against militants believed to be plotting attacks on America from safe havens there.

I think, instinctually, this makes a lot of us nervous.  No one seriously questions Salih's willingness to use our arms and money and training against the people of Yemen.  I understand that CT is our main objective in Yemen, but we also ned to be careful not to let our actions destroy our reputation (further destroy) for another generation.  

However, and I know that this article only talks about elite counter-terrorism troops, one thing Egypt has demonstrated it is that military contacts at many levels can be an excellent counterweight to an entrenched and reality-deprived authoritarian.   Indeed, one could make the case that it is the threat of withholding friendship, in the form of scrilla, that could make an army say "it's time to go."   Its own sense of morality could do so as well, but let's not depend on the kindness of strangers. 

This isn't to say that dumping military aid into Yemen is the best thing to do to hedge against our becoming entangled in Salih's potential death-throes; it could easily backfire.  Odds are, it will.  (And the article's almost comically lonely throwaway paragraph, consisting of one sentence reading "the overall U.S. effort also includes economic and governance assistance" is a perfect illustration of the blinkered nature of our strategy.)   But I also think we shouldn't be so quick to jump the gun and getting nervous about these expanded contacts.  A professional military is more likely to be loyal to the state, and not just to the guy doling out money. 


JMP Barely Riding the Tiger

One of the biggest questions lingering underneath the "Will Yemen go the way of Egypt and Tunisia" umbrella is the role the opposition, namely the Joint Meetings Party, will play.  The JMP (a combination of several parties, notably the Islamic party, Islah, and the Socialists)* organized the original protests a couple of weeks ago, the threat of which forced Salih to make some sizable concessions.    This seemed like a good step for many involved- it looked like it brought Salih some breathing room.

But the overthrowing of Mubarak is his nightmare.  It is one thing to rattle an autocrat; it is another altogether to depose him.   Yemenis who want Salih gone- and this is not all of them, of course, something which needs to be said- see a light in the tunnel.   So then: will the JMP be able to harness this?  It doesn't look like it.  Being a strange amalgamation, they don't have particularly strong leadership.  Greg has some more thoughts on this.  

But if the pattern follows like it did in Egypt, the political parties will at best try to fasten themselves on the back of the protestors.  Right now the demonstrations seem to exist in a political limbo- the JMP is giving their blessing, but it is a reactive one.  This is far more spontaneous.   Read this statement and this update from Arabist.net for a look at how things are spreading.

I think this will very quickly get out of the hands of the JMP, which is something I think Salih is deeply worried about.  When they were the ones organizing things, they represented someone with whom he could deal.  After all, they also had a stake in the system.  If they are bucked, all bets are off, as far as he is concerned.

But, then again, maybe the art fair tactic will change the dynamic.  It's like I have always said: arts and crafts ruin everything.

*As there have been more readers lately, and as I hope there will be more eyes if things heat up, I am going to sometimes explain things that regular readers and other Yemen-watchers know by shorthand.


Hat-tip to Will for this.  

ECRETARIAT CAPITAL, Feb 12 (Saba) – Minister of State and Mayor of the Secretariat Capital Abdul Rahman al Akwa'a opened on Saturday plastic art and handicraft exhibitions in Tahrir Square. 

The exhibitions were organized by the Union of Handicrafts and Small Industries Associations and the offices of the Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs, Culture, Tourism and Youth and Sports in the city. 

The month-long fairs aim to introduce handicrafts to investors and businessmen within the efforts of promoting Yemeni products on which many Yemeni families depend as living resources. 

Al Akwa'a praised the efforts of organizing such fairs as he stressed encouraging their organization. 

This is absolutely brilliant.  You guys really want to protest?  At the sake of art? And handicrafts?  Who is the real monster?