By James R. King - 03/21/11
The regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih is decidedly on the brink. With the resignations of over forty parliamentarians, nearly ten ambassadors (including to the U.N., U.K. and Saudi Arabia), and a handful of senior government and tribal figures, the once-nascent protest movement calling for Salih to step down is now reaching its revolutionary potential. Friday’s brutal massacre of over fifty unarmed people – in many cases, by snipers – guaranteed that.
This morning, three of Yemen’s five military zone commanders declared their support for the popular revolution. This included Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the most powerful military figure in the country after the President. Yemenis have received his announcement and pledge to protect the protestors, which immediately set in motion a torrent of additional military and civilian defections, with a mix of great enthusiasm and some trepidation.
On the one hand, his defection definitively tips the balance of power away from Salih, making the latter's eventual exit a near fait accompli. Yet Muhsin is a widely considered a brutal military leader, and he has come to symbolize the dominance of one small tribe, the Sanhan, over the country. As a result, many Yemenis fear that his motives may be more sinister than democratic change.
Within the palace politics of Yemen’s “Sanhan state,” a small group of rival families simultaneously work together to preserve their collective economic, political and military interests and compete for that pool of interests. Thus, while Muhsin has long been a pillar of the regime’s inner circle, his relationship to the President is famously volatile. Considering the loyalty he commands within key factions of the Yemeni military, his announcement, coupled with the Defense Minister’s subsequent declaration of military support for the President, threatens to thrust Yemeni into conflict over control of the armed forces.
This brings us to the United States.
On February 2nd, I wrote in The Hill that the U.S. “must side with the people of Yemen. President Salih will not live forever, though the collective memory of Yemenis will. Whether the U.S. chooses to support Yemenis’ longing for self-determination and freedom, or instead resorts to an ossified policy that prioritizes the façade of short-term stability, is now the key question. Its answer will have severe practical implications for American security in Yemen and the region.”
With Salih’s departure likely imminent, this is even truer today. Muhsin’s defection both reinforces the inevitability of change and raises the possibility of escalating violence and civil strife.
By continuing to back the Yemeni President, the Obama Administration risks positioning the U.S. as one of a crumbling few pillars that prop up an enfeebled regime, as well as a decisive factor in thwarting democracy and realizing the Yemeni people’s will. With Salih’s rapidly shrinking legitimacy, American support – tacit or explicit – provides a critical lifeline that might discourage him from stepping down peacefully and propel the country into military confrontation.
Yemen’s future is decidedly uncertain. The possibilities range from future presidential and parliamentary elections, to a transformed constitutional order, to a military coup d’état or even civil war. While such decisions must be left to Yemenis, particularly the youth that lead this democratic revolution, the Obama Administration must declare its unequivocal support for democratic change. It must officially endorse the peaceful transfer of power to a civil transitional government in Yemen now, likely buoyed by regional mediation. Feeble calls for dialogue with the opposition coalition are no longer viable.
It is important to recognize that the U.S. is not a passive participant in Yemen. In 2010, the Obama Administration offered over $175 million in security assistance to the Salih government, primarily to combat Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). During the recent protests, American-made equipment was used against peaceful demonstrators, and many Yemenis believe that by cautiously recommending dialogue, President Obama gave Salih a green light for his violent crackdown.
If history is any indication, the Salih regime will continue to trump the AQAP threat, attempting to garner immunity from violent repression and sowing civil strife. Facing Yemen’s tortuous complexity and a real, though inflated, al-Qaeda presence, the Obama Administration must resist falling into this short-sighted trap. Doing so will only embolden an AQAP narrative that stresses Yemen’s besiegement by an unholy alliance between a corrupt, repressive government and its American master. Alternatively, by applying pressure on Salih to step down and endorsing a robust process of national dialogue and sweeping reform – a process that cannot include the delegitimized President – it can undercut this narrative and ensure a constructive relationship with the future Yemeni state.
The U.S. must embrace a holistic approach to Yemen that supports the emergence of an inclusive and democratic civil government. Such a policy aims to invest Yemenis in their country’s future and eliminate AQAQ’s raison d’être, not merely its short-term tactical ability to strike the U.S. As Yemen’s former Ambassador to the UN stated following his resignation, “Al-Qaeda only thrives in closed societies.”
In Yemen, the Obama Administration does not face the difficult choice between American interests and ideals. Supporting freedom and democracy is both an act of counter-terrorism and a bold assertion of core American values.
James R. King is a specialist in Yemen and the broader Middle East. A former Fulbright Fellow in Jordan, he holds an M.A. in Islamic Studies from Columbia University and has conducted research on Yemen's Zaydi community through the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.