Balancing counterterrorism, a tense U.S.-Saudi alliance, and Yemen's protest movement -- the longest of the Arab Spring -- is difficult, but may still be possible
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh delivering a televised speech in Sanaa / Reuters
After more than three months in Saudi Arabia, President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to Yemen last Friday. The move surprised many Yemenis as well as U.S. diplomats trying to negotiate a transfer of power agreement that would see Saleh cede power. Yemen has been the site of the Arab Spring's longest popular uprising -- protesters have camped in tent cities and attended mass rallies every Friday for eight months. The movement has been punctuated by clashes between military forces still loyal to the regime and rebel tribal militiamen and troops who have defected to the opposition. After a lull in violence over the summer, the past week has been the bloodiest yet.
With more than 140 deaths in the past several days alone, it is difficult to believe that only a couple weeks ago a peaceful transfer of power seemed nearly at hand. On September 12, Saleh transferred to his deputy, Vice President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, the authority to negotiate and sign a transition deal. Despite lingering doubts over Saleh's sincerity, the State Department last week expressed optimism that the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered initiative, first introduced in April, would be signed, finally, within the week. Three days later, government forces opened fire on protesters, and by week's end, Saleh had returned to Sanaa.
Even at the time, there were indicators problems lay ahead, according to Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University. "Yemenis have a finely-tuned sense of the unwritten subtext of political actions, and Saleh's offer to cede authority to Hadi set off a number of alarms," Johnson wrote by email. "Certainly as soon as Saleh announced a new proposition many Yemenis started to worry about the prospect of a new round of fighting."
The greatest hazard in Saleh's authorization of Hadi was that it cut out other remnants of the regime, including Saleh's son, Ahmed, and his nephews who command elite units of the military. With Hadi chosen to oversee the transfer of power, Ahmed and his cousins found themselves at the margins of a process that, if finalized, would cost them their careers and their prestige. Their easiest recourse was to use the military force at their command, which they did, firing at protesters in an apparent effort to reassert their own political importance.
After the week's bloodshed, it is unlikely that the Yemeni opposition can support the GCC deal as long as the proposal provides amnesty for Saleh and members of his regime. Despite advancing the GCC initiative in a speech on Sunday, Saleh's return suggests that it will not move forward, particularly now that he is more vulnerable to face prosecution. Hadi retains the power to negotiate and sign the agreement on behalf of Saleh, but whatever limited power Hadi had on the ground has been displaced by Ahmed and the rest of the military leadership.
The amnesty provision is just one of the GCC agreement's many faults, but in the five months since it was presented, no one has introduced a viable alternative agreement. From the beginning of Yemen's uprising, the United States has been careful to work through Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has a long and complicated history with Yemen; Saudi royals have maintained extensive patronage networks to influence Yemeni sheikhs, and King Abdul Aziz's deathbed admonition to his sons in 1953 -- "Keep Yemen weak," he's purported to have told them -- makes it difficult to believe that Saudi diplomacy has Yemen's best interests at heart. For all their power and influence, the Saudis could not keep Saleh in their country, let alone deliver his signature on the GCC deal.
Despite this, President Obama seems committed to working through the Saudis and the GCC initiative. "We must work with Yemen's neighbors and our partners around the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power from President Saleh," he said at the United Nations last week. This was a reasonable approach closer to the beginning of the uprising, when the U.S. was using its political capital to urge Saudi Arabia to show restraint in Bahrain; at the time, Yemen's domestic crisis was a lower priority. The United States could still pursue its counterterrorism efforts; on September 13, CIA director David Petraeus reported, "counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen has, in fact, improved in the past few months." Tensions are still high between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. is still promoting the GCC proposal, an almost certain diplomatic dead-end. The deal is unlikely to be signed or instituted in a way that will resolve the crisis, but the U.S., it seems, doesn't want to abandon a plan, however flawed, into which it has sunk so much time and political capital. The U.S., in other words, is wasting time.