The End of the Line in Yemen

The disappearance of drinking water, corruption, terrifying mosque speeches -- these elements have not yet produced the systems failure everyone knows is coming -- but they have certainly ratcheted up the tension.
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Over the past ten years, the world has been watching the nation of Yemen drift into the abyss. It's a fascinating spectacle, let's admit it. The disappearance of drinking water, the staggering rate of population increase, the corruption, the floods, the cussedness of the Yemeni president, the hollow institutions, the rivalrous tribes, the often terrifying crowds in the streets, the similarly terrifying mosque speeches -- to date these elements have somehow not produced the general systems failure everyone knows is coming. But they have certainly ratcheted up the tension. Now any little thing --somebody else's revolution, for instance or a single revolutionary with a flare for the dramatic -- could push the entire spectacle over the edge. Anyway the crowds in the streets are more violent than ever been before. They keep getting bigger. No one knows what they want. Meanwhile, Saleh, the Yemeni president, seems to be shooting just enough demonstrators to enflame their brethren. The country teeters.

Happily, the US exercises a degree of moral suasion over the figure at the center of this drama, President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Do we not? We have supported and cajoled him into a decade's worth of pro-democracy reforms, and when he has impinged on our ideals, we have let him know, through speeches and private meetings, that he's fallen short. Plus we give him $100 million a year. Plus we give him cool military hardware. This has earned us... well, something. Right?

In any case, he is our man. There is no other. I know the Western journalists now in Sana'a have taken umbrage at his self dealing and his violence but even they are likely to admit: no one but Saleh understands the architecture of kickbacks, off-shore accounts, threats, intertribal vendettas, Mercedes deliveries, land swaps, arms depots, eyes to be extracted for eyes and teeth for teeth -- the inner structure of the nation, in other words -- as Saleh does. He built this house of cards himself. When he goes, he will take its secrets -- and the whole thing is secret -- with him.

In fact there are times when it appears we have beautiful relations with Saleh.

Last year, when the US government approached him with a plan to launch cruise missiles onto the villages of Majalah and Shabwa, he was more than receptive to the idea, urging the Americans to continue, as the WikiLeaks cables put it, "non-stop until we eradicate this disease" (of Al Qaeda), and to walk through "the open door on terrorism", he had given the US military, and, by the way, to "accelerate additional support... helicopters and vehicles with IED jamming devices."

Later, when it turned out that the American intelligence wasn't so good, that no terrorists were killed in either location but rather some thirty normal citizens, Saleh apparently fell into a funk. In subsequent meetings with American officials, he seems to have misbehaved. During one of these meetings, he roused himself from what Ambassador Seche described as his "bored... disdainful... dismissive" state of mind to denounce the behavior of the American government in general. "You [Americans]," he complained "are hot-blooded and hasty when you need us but cold-blooded and British when we need you."

This of course was a private complaint. In public he lied as Yemeni citizens are accustomed to him lying -- which is to say he covered up the extent of his collaboration with the Americans. He himself ordered the strikes, he claimed, and his air force carried them out. His willingness to kill, misinform and cooperate with American generals is of course a reason so many citizens want him gone but never mind. We, the Americans, on this occasion, got what we wanted out of him.

It's probably possible to argue that the American approach has succeeded in other respects as well. Our basic goal over the past decade has been to shore up Saleh's emergent democracy. When it is robust, the theory goes, Yemenis will have a stake in their government, will cooperate for a brighter tomorrow, and neither the terrorists nor nature itself will take the upper hand in the management of the state.

One way to measure the success of this democracy-promotion program is to read the official Yemeni newspapers. Or for that matter, one could listen to the speeches of the president himself. For the record the president, all of his newspapers, and huge swaths of the Yemeni population favor the "freedom agenda," as George Bush used to call it -- which is to say, they speak fulsomely about tolerance, good governance, freedom of the press, peaceful transfers of power, minority rights, and so on. The entire purpose of the Yemen Observer, a newspaper funded by the office of the president, is to speak this language-of-the-Yemeni-future back at the Americansin English.

Clearly then the nation has gotten the memo. Most importantly, Saleh has gotten it -- and this is tangible evidence of the success of our diplomacy. Right?

"I'm going to reveal a secret," Saleh said to nationwide TV audience two weeks ago, as the crowds outside the university auditorium in which he was speaking threw rocks. "There is an operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world. The operations room is in Tel Aviv and run by the White House."

In Saleh's view, the demonstrations sweeping through the Arab world were a kind of sickness which had now spread to Yemen. The current US ambassador in Sana'a, Gerald Feierstein was himself worsening the disease, he said. Saleh then listed the names of notorious local malcontents. "Regrettably those (figures) are sitting day and night with the American ambassador where they hand him reports and he gives them instructions." Perhaps, Saleh suggested, the Americans should consider butting the hell out? "We hear statements from President Obama asking the Egyptians to do this, telling the Tunisians to do that. Are you the president of the United States or the president of the Arab world?"

To these provocations the White House responded as Americans have been responding for a decade now... with a lecture.

"We've made clear to the leadership in Yemen, as we have to the leadership in other countries, that they need to focus on the political reforms that they need to implement to respond to the legitimate aspirations of their people. And we don't think scapegoating will be the kind of response that the people of Yemen or the people in other countries will find adequate."

Thus Jay Carney. By the way, the Yemeni people do find scapegoating, if Israel is involved, to be, at the very least, a highly satisfying response to current problems. But this is beside the point.

The point is that with Yemen on the brink, it doesn't seem to have been a good idea to urge Saleh to collaborate in killing his own people. It doesn't seem to have been much of an idea to lecture him about democracy either. Shortly after this speech, Saleh moved against the demonstrators camped outside the auditorium in which he was speaking with tear gas, and live ammunition.

I think it's safe to say that Saleh's house of cards is not interested in the lectures. Meanwhile, every day, the crowds in the streets thicken. When will the tipping point come?

For the time being, Yemen is still a nation. In this interval of relative calm, it's probably worth taking a moment to contemplate what a new war will bring. It will have something of the bitterness of the Shia-Sunni rivalry to it, since this has always been an essential division in Yemeni life. It will have the resentments of the Southerners in it and also the passions of those who think the Prophet is the perfect, final solution for life's problems. Not many Yemenis will disagree with such a proposition but if Islam turns out to be the only solution, many citizens will flee. Above all, the war to come will be bitter because it will be a family struggle. Those supporting the existing government are the long-suffering, patient, father-revering sons. Those throwing rocks in the streets are the hotheaded, nothing-left-to-lose, we-tremble-only-before-god sons. The former group wants order, even at the cost of fairness. It's not as if the president doesn't make us suffer too, say the good sons. Yet we preserve our dignity. The latter group -- the bad, rebellious sons -- have long ago stopped caring about propriety. Saleh's order has kept them in a state of chronic humiliation. They want violence.

Well, there you have it: on one side of the divide stands Cain with his rock. On the other stands Abel with his sacrifices (in Islam these figures are Habil and Qabil).

Since every citizen in Yemen is well armed, and since many have been waiting for this battle to come for the better part of a generation, it'll certainly be a bloody fight.

Last week, the American Ambassador Feierstein, made yet another charming but bootless democracy speech to Yemeni reporters. It was reprinted in the government newspapers -- including the Observer -- as all such speeches are.

I wonder whom he thought he was speaking to. Everybody in Yemen knows this music by heart. The rock throwers know it. The president knows it. What the lyrics actually mean -- the responsibilities they enjoin and the commitments they require--is beyond the citizenry at the moment and totally uninteresting to the government. When I worked in Yemen, I wrote these sorts of speeches day and night. I had no idea what they meant and like all my Yemeni friends and neighbors I was much too strung out on qat, to say nothing of fascinated by the words of the Prophet, to care. Now, in addition to these stimulants, the prospect of fratricidal warfare is in the air.

Perhaps if Feierstein knew how intoxicating this cocktail is, how its fumes are seeping into people's sleep in Sana'a, he would find some other, better means of communication. But like all US ambassadors, he's locked inside his idiom. It's quite dead by now in Yemen. Earth to Feierstein: this speech is unintelligible. It might be making things worse. Try something else.