Yemen is a complex country that has been under considerable turbulence. Yet understanding Yemen tells us a great deal about the contemporary Middle East, Obama administration foreign policy, and the direction of the “Arab Spring.”
While Americans may think that their government’s recent policies and leadership have made the United States more popular in the region, the truth — as polls show — is generally the opposite. Obama administration policy is to support the existing dictatorship or at most to back a relatively cosmetic change in the regime. Thus, the Yemeni opposition weekly al Sahwa asked, “Why is America silent about the use of `counter-terror’ forces against the Yemeni people?”
It’s a good question. Since February, youth protests in Yemen morphed into a nationwide and intergenerational revolution to overthrow President Ali Abdullah Saleh and all his relatives, after 33 years in office. Protesters said they wanted a civilian interim council to oversee a new constitution and fair elections, with the ultimate goal of achieving a civil democratic state. In response, state security forces have murdered nearly 1,000 citizens around the country.
Thomas Krajeski, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, summed up the policy as follows: “Ali Abdullah Saleh is our main conduit to everything we are trying to do in Yemen.” The U.S.’s primary goal in Yemen is to vanquish al-Qaeda. And the Obama administration believes that Saleh, or at least his apparatus, is best able to do that.
This is precisely the short-sighted approach that Obama has criticized when attributing it to predecessors’ policies in the Middle East. Under Saleh’s regime, torture is systemic, political kidnapping common, and artillery fire a frequent remedy to anti-regime sentiment. Economic opportunity, political power, and local authority are available only through access to Saleh and his family. Corruption and embezzlement of oil revenues and international aid mean a near absence of basic services. Water scarcity and hunger were already at critical levels, but as the economy ground nearly to a halt, things are even worse.
After snipers killed 58 demonstrators in March, much of the Saleh administration resigned, galvanizing the revolution. The unsavory General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, a powerful military commander and Saleh’s half brother, brought the First Armored Division to Sanaa to protect the protesters and offered to leave the country alongside Saleh. In May, after dozens sleeping in tents were burned to death by security forces, Sadiq al-Ahmar, paramount sheikh of Saleh’s powerful Hasid tribe, announced his support for the opposition, calling Saleh a butcher.
The opposition Joint Meeting of Parties (JMP) initially disavowed the national uprising in fear of regime reprisal and due to Western pressure, reinforcing the schism between the formal opposition and the revolutionary youth.