Yemen: deconstructing the US response

Even by American standards, the reaction to President Saleh’s most recent bout of political squirming is pretty awful.  A more capable and time-rich person than I could write a pretty devastating critique. For now, I’ll stick to the main points:

WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama’s top anti-terror advisor John Brennan on Friday called Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to welcome his pledge to devolve power and urged the opposition to support the plan.

A simple history lesson will reveal Saleh’s true legacy to Yemen: a litany of broken promises. Although circumstances have changed, I see see no guarantee that the president has suddenly become a man of his word. The past 2 decades have seen a string of ‘concessions’ aimed at shoring up support for his presidency. Yet despite the rhetoric of reform, this period has also been characterized by a process of political contraction during which Saleh tightened control over a country where the scars of civil war had failed to heal. The most high profile of these empty promises came in 2005 when he pledged not to run for re-election the following year. In 2006, he went on to win another term, arguing that he was only bowing to the true will of his people.

“Brennan reiterated that representatives of all sectors of the Yemeni opposition should respond constructively to President Saleh’ss call to engage in a serious dialogue to end the current impasse,” the White House said in a statement.

If we interpret Saleh’s latest announcement as another empty promise, it would seem ludicrous to exhort the opposition to engage in the same charade. This is a crucial time for opposition politics in Yemen and the JMP is becoming increasingly assertive in its  they seek to harness popular discontent and use it against the government. As Brian O’Neill argued a few weeks back, the party have struggled to do so, but their response to events on the ground has been growing more coherent in recent days. To my mind, it has been particularly interesting to watch how opposition figures conduct themselves when taking part in the protests. Where figures such as Tawakul Karman have adopted a high profile, they have done so as individuals, rather than in their capacity party members.

The White House said that Saleh reiterated his hope that the opposition will take part in an immediate dialogue.

This obsession with ‘dialogue’ is borne out of a US inability to envisage a Yemen without Saleh at the helm. The risk of creating a political vacuum in which AQAP might flourish are seen as too great, so the only solution has been to do all they can to keep him in power whilst not being seen to meddle directly in Yemen’s domestic affairs. It is difficult to see this approach working. As Gregory Johnsen has repeatedly argued, the US needs to change it’s tone quickly in Yemen or it will miss a chance to get ahead of the curve in a post-Saleh future.

[Saleh] also ordered his security forces to ensure the safety of anti-government protesters after weeks of unrest in which some 30 people have been killed, part of a wave of popular unrest across the Arab world.

… and less than 24 hours later, the police attacked Yemen’s Tahrir Square protest, killing one and injuring dozens more. According to AFP, police fired live rounds and tear gas grenades as they moved in on the protesters. As we can see, Saleh’s promises are already counting for a lot.

He said he would hold a “referendum before the end of the year on a new constitution clearly stipulating the separation of powers” between the president and the parliament. The new charter would “install a parliamentary regime giving all executive powers to a government elected by parliament,” he added.

There’s an awful lot to say about the reform announcement itself. For the sake of time, I’ll limit myself to just one point: Saleh’s promises  represent a tacit acknowledgement of the empty nature of his reforming rhetoric over the past decade. In theory, a parliamentary system with considerable power already exists. In practise, it has never represented much more than a rubber stamp for the president’s decisions.

The adoption of a new constitution is unlikely to change this since the roots of Yemen’s political malaise run far deeper. During Saleh’s time in office, the majority of the legislature has been co-opted into far-reaching patronage networks, leaving the politicians indivdually endebted to Saleh himself. Cosmetic change to the political arena would do little to combat these chains of dependence, thus ensuring that the current status quo was maintained under a new guise. Opposition parties have already rejected Saleh’s propsals, and rightly so.

All in all, a poor response from the US to an even poorer announcement from Saleh. The Yemeni people deserve better.

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