While the eyes of the world are fixed on the bloody drama occurring along the Libyan coast, an equally important struggle is taking place in Yemen, where Presidente-for-life Ali Abdullah Saleh is beset by a remarkable grouping of young democracy activists, Opposition from within the Political Elite, and disaffected tribesmen from the backcountry.
Under siege, Ali Abdullah has twisted and turned like the snake he claimed to dance with, but few are the Yemenis who believe a word he says now after 30 years of lies and deceit. Thus he has turned to his patrons the US and the KSA brandishing the phantom of al-Qa’ida and claiming the age-old appeal “après moi la deluge!”
Sec Def Gates appears to have accepted much of this argument without demur, as does the British Government. The Sa’udi Government want stability on their southern border, and seem unconcerned who delivers it, while the Chinese Government believe that Ali Abdullah Saleh should be able to restore stability to Yemen – presumably à la Tianamen. No one seems to have asked whether a Strong Man is an effective counter to terrorism, whether this Strong Man is an effective counter to terrorism, and in particular, whether there is an alternative to the cult of The Strong Man.
“Strong Men” were beloved in the Middle East – not by their subjects (or objects as they regarded them), but by foreign (often “democratic”) governments, who prized predictability and “accommodation” to Great Power positions on oil and Israel. The arms sales were mere added bonuses. Yet as with so many political theories, the facts do not support the concept: Ayman al-Zawahiri was the spawn of Sadat and Mubarak; ‘Usama bin Ladin the creation of the Sa’udi regime; Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi the result of Saddam’s brutality; Mustafa SittMaryam Nasar the product of the Syrian state. Brutal regimes breed terrorists not pacifists.
This particular Strong Man is well known for his accommodation with al-Qa’ida. Not only did Yemen send many Yemenis to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, but Ali Abdullah Saleh – through his cousin and henchman Ali Muhsin Saleh – then used their skills to assault Aden in the bloody 1994 Yemeni Civil War. His on-again / off-again relationship with them continued through the early 2000s, with al-Qa’ida terrorists such as Jamal al-Badawi benefiting from a catch and release scheme. Things got worse – after a 2006 dressing-down in the US, 23 senior al-Qa’ida members escaped from a high security jail in the capital. Not even the President’s nephew (in charge of a security force-cum-Praetorian Guard) was able to keep a straight face when describing the “break out” to US diplomats. Those men formed the nucleus of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has attacked the US Embassy, three US-bound aircraft, the British Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission, and the nephew of the King of Sa’udi Arabia. They have also murdered the 81 year old spiritual leader of the Huthi insurrection, the greatest threat to the Saleh’s kleptocracy – too convenient to be co-incidence – and others of Ali Abdullah’s opponents may suffer the same fate. The result of this mayhem and murder? The spoilt child is rewarded for his bad behaviour with a huge increase in funding for his security forces, while continuing to rattle the tin for more! ALI ABDULLAH SALEH HAS SPONSORED AND COLLABORATED WITH AL-QA’IDA. HE IS NOT THE SOLUTION; HE IS PART OF THE PROBLEM.
The “what if” scenario posited as a justification for supporting Ali Abdullah Saleh (and thus probably for an inherited dictatorship) is that the future leader is unknown, untested and that these are dangerous times. While Mr Gates is a Republican, he has served a Democratic US President with the same dedication and skill as he did President Bush. Professional, meritocratic staff (especially militaries) represent the best form of continuity in adversity, not permanent politicians – or should George W Bush have remained President?
Not only is democracy a good idea in principle, it is a good idea in practice. Many of the issues which beset Yemen are a result of Ali Abdullah’s kleptocracy and cronyism. The Zaydi revivalist Huthis in the north object to the Regime’s corruption and discrimination against them; they tried the political route, but were unable to prevail against Saleh’s Rotten Boroughs. The Southernists, too, have tried the political route to end the corruption and prejudice they have suffered. They too have been met with repression. With a representative government, many of these issues would be addressed for the good of Yemenis, not just Ali Abdullah Saleh and his clique.
The biggest bogeyman of all – al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula – is also likely to fade away. Merely because the Regime’s writ does not run far outside Sana’a does not mean that the backcountry is lawless. On the contrary, a system of common law, social security and mutual protection has existed for thousands of years: the tribes. Currently they suffer al-Qa’ida as it provides them with a lever against Ali Abdullah’s regime. With a representative government, they would have little need of such a lever. Should al-Qa’ida try to impose their alien ideology on the heavily armed tribes of Yemen, they would meet the same fate as al-Qa’ida in Iraq did.
“Strong Men” are not the solution to Yemen’s problems – or the threat posed by al-Qa’ida to the US – for “Strong Men” create more terrorists than they kill. The best solution to Yemen’s problems is representative democracy, when Yemen will be not just a liability, but an asset to the International Community. Such stability will not happen under Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ali Muhsin Saleh or any of their clique. Ali Abdullah Saleh must go. Ali Abdullah Saleh must go now.