Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 September 2011
Issue No. 1063
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The determination of the Yemeni people

The uprising in Yemen has highlighted the resilience and determination of the Yemeni people as well as the urgent need for change in US policy in the country, writes Mohamed El-Mokhtar

The current stalemate in Yemen is not politically sustainable. The intransigence of the incumbent president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is causing an unprecedented political standstill. Such paralysis is sucking up the energy of the whole country and creating an atmosphere of near anarchy. And the responsibility for this mayhem lies squarely in the hands of the president, given his lack of willingness to compromise or step down from power.

Public administration is in a shambles throughout the country. The already fragile civil institutions are working far below their potential capacity, from which comes the limited access everywhere to public services or the lack thereof. These limitations in the delivery of vital services, deliberately engineered by the regime, are exacting a high cost on ordinary citizens, as is evidenced by the scarcity of fuel, water, electricity and other basic commodities.

Yet, in spite of all this the Yemeni people have shown a rare determination in recent months in continuing their peaceful fight for human rights. They have been able, owing to their courage, to show the whole world how they are standing up for their dignity. Their extraordinary poise and patience have turned upside down many deep-seated Western stereotypes and ill-conceived ideas about Arabs and Muslims.

The peaceful nature of their protests underscores, despite the many provocations of the government, the strong resolve of Yemenis to recover their legitimate civil rights without resorting to violence or illegal means. As is epitomised in the slogan silmeeya ila neehaya, peaceful until the end, such attitudes are meaningful in many respects. This collective sense of self-control is all the more admirable in that Yemen is probably per capita the most heavily armed country in the world, and the incident involving the tribal leader El Ahmar remains a parenthesis in the broader scheme of things.

Thus, the Yemeni uprising has taught us an invaluable lesson about the inaccuracy of anthropological presumptions and empirically unfounded sociological extrapolations from complacent scholarship. It reveals the limitations and lack of rigour of certain supposedly scientific tools of normative evaluation prevailing in many Western academic circles and think-tanks.

The Yemeni awakening has showcased that even in a land divided by sectarianism, tribalism and regionalism, people can still unite on common ground and that they are predisposed to transcend a narrow sense of identity provided they can identify with a common ideal. Therefore, when a national ideal is clearly defined, or seems coherent to the majority, tribal solidarity or esprit de corps ( al-assabiya ) becomes ipso facto secondary in importance. These circumstances and parochial sensitivities become more or less irrelevant: in other words, they dont constitute any further obstacle to democratic transformation.

Furthermore, the ongoing popular revolution in Yemen has proved once again that the murderous ideology advocated by Al-Qaeda and its like, contrary to certain Western Orientalist assumptions, does not remotely attract or inspire the majority of young Arabs. On the contrary, such deviationism, with the exception of a few suicidal desperados bent on wreaking havoc, was, and is, a repugnant cult in the eyes of the overwhelming majority. This is what really matters in order to debunk prejudice and stereotypes.

Without downplaying the importance of an educated urban middle class to serves as an anchor for democracy, it is nevertheless important to draw the following lesson from the citizens revolt in Yemen: the absence of a large middle class, or the prevalence of poverty, is not necessarily a major hurdle to political awakening. Indeed, if in a poverty- stricken country like Yemen people are seen to be keen to exercise their political rights, this shows that that political consciousness is not only the exclusive prerogative of a given social class.

Over the course of many decades, president Saleh has transformed what could have been a model of success in the Middle East into a nearly failed state. Under his prolonged rule, the country has become the prototype of an Arab basket case.

Yet, Yemen does not suffer from a shortage of resources or a lack of manpower. Unlike the other countries of the Gulf, the country has potential other than oil. First of all, Yemen has important human capital in an otherwise under- populated region. It is an ancient land endowed with a traditionally entrepreneurial merchant class; it has a rich cultural heritage and an old and successful diaspora; and it enjoys a central geographic position in a major geostrategic zone.

But rather than utilising these assets to build a functioning modern state, Saleh has instead subverted the process of nation-building to fit his own desire to stay in power. To do so, he has not hesitated to pit region against region or cynically to exploit sectarian tensions or to profiteer from the US and other Western nations desire to fight radical Muslims by over-blowing the threat of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Even worse, Saleh has cultivated corruption to unparalleled levels. To get a sense of the depth of nepotism under his rule, these are few illustrative, albeit partial, examples. The Republican Guard is headed by colonel Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the eldest son of the president. The deputy chairman of the National Security Organisation is colonel Amar Mohamed Abdullah Saleh (a nephew). The commander of the central security forces is colonel Yahaya Mohamed Abdullah Saleh (another nephew), also a major shareholder in the Almas Company for Petroleum Services and a Chinese cable company, Huaiwai. The presidents half brother Ali Saleh Al-Ahmar commands the air force and is a shareholder in the Hashdi Petroleum Company.

These are just a few examples, for the domain of the presidents relatives spans all sorts of activities. From high office in the public sector to important stakes in the private one (oil companies, agriculture, telecommunications, etc.), their monopolistic greed has no limits. But Salehs grip on power could not have lasted without outside help.

The foreign policy of Saudi Arabia has seldom been helpful to its neighbours. With the possible exception of Qatar, investment in Yemen from the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been almost non-existent until recently. Saudi Arabia speaks of the need for a stable and united Yemen, but it lobbied the major oil companies not so long ago to prevent them from exploring the countrys oil fields. It also imposes a draconian regime of entry visas on Yemeni citizens in dire need of work.

Instead of mediating between the government and the Houthi rebels during the latters recent insurrection, Saudi Arabia chose to support Salehs ill-advised strategy and hence helped encourage sectarian tensions and potential instability. Because of popular opposition in Yemen to the First Gulf War, it squeezed the country financially for years, halting almost all type of investment, and this was in addition to expelling hundreds of thousands of Yemeni citizens as retribution for the position of their government. Sudanese, Palestinians and Mauritanians suffered the same ordeal, as did countless other Arabs.

Today, Saudi Arabia is playing an ambiguous role in the Yemeni crisis: on the one hand, it is calling for a smooth political transition, while on the other it is encouraging Saleh in persisting in his stubborn intransigence by providing him with the financial and military means to suppress the ongoing citizen revolt.

The last thing the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia wants to see on its doorstep is an Arab people capable of freely expressing its will through the democratic mechanism of self-determination. There is no greater threat to a self- described divinely-inspired monarchy than the sovereign power of the vox populi.

The security assistance that has been provided to Saleh by the US has also boosted his resilience, and it is now being used to delay the political transition in Yemen. Although Saleh has supposedly been helpful in providing the US with a launch pad for its war against the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) group, this support comes at a price, and it is a double-edged sword used by the regime in Sanaa to crack down on political opponents.

By over-blowing the threat of Al-Qaeda, Saleh has been able to divert aid provided supposedly to fight terrorism to achieve personal political goals. Thus, he relied on US support to suppress the Houthi insurrection, fight the southern movement, and settle old score with rival tribal factions. This in turn helped exacerbate the problems at the source of the current instability.

The very timid appeals made by Washington for Saleh to step down lacked the forcefulness of the White Houses demands for allies like former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali or former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down following the popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively.

Moreover, the over-reliance on security cooperation through the use of warplanes and drone attacks has alienated popular support for the US in Yemen and made matters worse. The duplication of the failed strategy already employed by the US in Pakistan will only inflame the situation and make the ground more fertile for extremism and radicalisation to take place. In the light of the recent changes that have taken place in the Arab world, a review of Washingtons policy toward the region is urgently needed. Changes in the strategy are in the interest of the Americans and that of the region as a whole.

The most important step the US can now take in this regard is to support an independent and viable Palestinian state. There is no doubt that this will do more for its long- term geostrategic interests and national security than all the drone attacks it is carrying out in Pakistan and the Middle East and all the expensive CIA covert operations it is undertaking around the world.

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