Arabs Rise for Rights, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America

U.S. Treads Cautious Line on Yemen Protests

David Elkins

WASHINGTON, Apr 6 2011 (IPS) - United States officials reaffirmed their support for a peaceful transition of power in Yemen, but stopped short of publicly calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s immediate abdication as clashes between protesters and Yemeni security forces, which began in late January, violently escalate.

“The United States strongly supports the Yemeni people in their quest for greater opportunity and their pursuit of political and economic reform that will fulfill their aspirations,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a press release on Tuesday. “President Saleh needs to resolve the political impasse with the opposition so that meaningful political change can take place in the near term in an orderly and peaceful manner.”

While a recent story published by the New York Times indicated that President Barack Obama had decided to support the removal of President Saleh in an abrupt shift in his Yemen policy, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated that the U.S. position regarding Yemen has been consistent in calling for a peaceful negotiation process between Saleh and opposition groups.

“[W]e’ve been calling for an end to the violence and for the government of Yemen to address the concerns of its people in a timely fashion for some time,” Toner said on Monday.

The European Union (EU) has taken a decidedly different tone. In response to reports that at least 15 protesters had been killed Monday in the western cities of Ta’izz and al- Hudaydah, Catherine Ashton, the high representative of foreign affairs for the EU, called for an immediate change.

“I reiterate my call for an orderly political transition to begin without delay in order to resolve the current crisis and pave the way to reforms. This is the message I personally conveyed to the president last week. Transition must begin now,” Ashton said in a press release on Tuesday.

In a country plagued with what has proven to be violent political and tribal rivalries, a secessionist movement in the south, an ongoing war between government forces and Shia Houthi rebels in the north, and an active al Qaeda presence in a number of provinces, popular demand for regime change is but the most recent challenge facing President Saleh’s increasingly tenuous reign.

Analysts point out that in a post-Saleh Yemen, or even a post-Arab Spring Yemen – in which Saleh were able to maintain a weakened hold on power – U.S.-Yemen relations will continue to revolve around U.S. national security interests and the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) led by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen.

After Umar Farouk Abdulmatullab, who trained at an AQAP camp in Yemen, attempted to blow up a commercial airliner heading to Detroit, Michigan in December 2009 and a spate of attacks on Yemeni government officials that have been attributed to AQAP, the terrorist organisation has proved surprisingly resilient given the nearly doubling of U.S. aid for counterterrorism operations in Yemen over the past two years and joint U.S.-Yemeni efforts to eradicate extremism in the country.

While counterterrorism issues are certainly a top priority of U.S. officials, and countrywide violence clearly has a negative impact on all Yemeni civilians – particularly the families of Yemeni troops fighting and dying for the cause against AQAP – political opposition groups have a range of other problems to address, not least of which is the peaceable removal of President Saleh.

As the poorest Arab country, Yemen faces a substantial current accounts deficit, swelling unemployment, a severely limited water supply and dwindling oil production, which accounts for 70 percent of the government’s revenues.

“For Yemenis on the whole, al Qaeda is not a problem. Most Yemenis think that al Qaeda is a creation of the Saleh regime in order to gain U.S. backing,” Towson University Professor Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert, told IPS, “If the U.S. plays a positive role in resolving the issues of the economy and the state, then Yemenis might be more willing to support American military initiatives against al Qaeda.”

“Once a transition to a more popular government is made, the campaign against al Qaeda will resume in some form simply because they are a source of instability,” Schmitz continued.

The Joint Meetings Parties (JMP), an umbrella organisation for the major opposition groups, including the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al-Islah) and the Yemeni Socialist Party, have – in direct negotiations with Saleh – urged the president to transfer power before his term ends in 2013, a rebuff to Saleh’s Feb. 2 pledge that neither he nor his son would run for office at the conclusion of his term.

While the JMP presented a list outlining its demands to the president on Mar. 23, the negotiations between all opposition parties and Saleh, which are being mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council, have been marked by divergent interests and disagreement over how to achieve their one unifying goal: Saleh’s departure.

The youth movement, which has been a driving force in the street demonstrations that erupted on Jan. 27, has demanded Saleh’s immediate abdication, but other negotiating parties seem to be taking a gradualist approach.

Some opposition leaders have taken reports about the West’s change in heart in supporting the removal of President Saleh seriously and remain confident that his departure is within reach. Sheikh Mohammed Abu Lahoun, the former head of the Foreign Relations Department of parliament’s ruling General People’s Congress, provided an optimistic forecast for Yemen in a conference Tuesday sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace.

“We need to work out a good exit strategy [for Saleh], and I think the U.S. position, and with the Europeans today, is quite intelligent and should be encouraging to the president to take that step and give us an exit strategy and this is encouraging the opposition,” Lahoum said.

While the official U.S. position remains determined to see the negotiations through, some experts argue Saleh’s quick departure is a foregone conclusion.

“Saleh was a very good friend to the U.S. military and it took some time for the security folks to come around to the realisation that Saleh was losing control,” Schmitz said, ” [T]here is a recognition that Saleh has lost support and some sort of new government has to come to power.”

Republish | | Print |

posthumous memoirs of bras cubas