The pent up rage of the masses that erupted in Tunisia last December 17 has engulfed the entire Muslim East. Two dictators — General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and General Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — were consigned in quick succession to the dustbin of history but others are fighting back.
The pent up rage of the masses that erupted in Tunisia last December 17 has engulfed the entire Muslim East. Two dictators — General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and General Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — were consigned in quick succession to the dustbin of history but others are fighting back. There is a counter-revolution underway led by such old timers as Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. King Abdullah of Jordan is keeping his head down and trying to ride out the storm. Yet others like the aged King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Hamad bin Khalifa of Bahrain are fighting back, with outside help, in hopes of wearing the protesters down. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is also putting up a determined fight to retain power.
The Saudis are deeply involved in two countries that border their kingdom: in Yemen to the south and Bahrain across the causeway to the east. In Bahrain, the Saudis have deployed troops that have perpetrated horrible crimes. In Yemen, the Saudis have taken a pass this time despite pleas for help from Saleh after their bitter experience against Houthi tribesmen in early 2009 when they were given a bloody nose. But even if they have refused to send their soldiers, most of them little better than petty street thugs, this does not mean they have washed their hands off Yemen. The Saudis are using the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a vehicle to push their agenda.
Realizing that the longer the crisis in Yemen drags on, the greater its negative fall out on the situation in the kingdom, foreign ministers from GCC member-states met in Riyadh on April 17 to convince Saleh to make a graceful exit. The Yemeni dictator is a wily operator. Following a week of pressure from GCC members, Saleh agreed on April 23 to hand over power to his deputy in a month’s time after signing a formal agreement with the opposition. Under its terms, he and his family members would be granted immunity from prosecution but there is a catch. He insists on a formal agreement being signed first while he drags his feet hoping to shift the blame onto the opposition for failure to reach an accord. Nearly a week after he announced that he was willing to resign there has been little progress toward finding a solution that would satisfy both sides. On May 1, he withdrew his offer to resign plunging the country back into turmoil.
Part of the problem with the GCC agreement was its call for a halt to street protests and for the opposition to take part in a coalition with Saleh’s ruling party. Yassin Saeed Noman, leader of the opposition movement, said his coalition accepted the agreement in principle but rejected the conditions demanded by Saleh. He said he would allow Saleh’s party to govern until he resigned and then join a power-sharing government. Noman also said the opposition lacked the power to force protesters off the streets.
In fact, agreeing to end the street protests would deprive the opposition of the only weapon they have in their hands to exert pressure on Saleh and his henchmen. Government officials have dug in their heels insisting the protests must end before there could be any agreement. Further, they have already started blaming the opposition for failing to implement the agreement which neither side has signed.
On April 27 there were renewed anti-government protests in seven cities across the country, including the capital, Sana‘a in which at least 13 protesters were shot and killed by the security forces. On Friday April 29, there were two rallies in the capital, one organized by the regime to demonstrate it still enjoyed support among the people, and the other by the opposition when tens of thousands of poured into Sana‘a mourning the killing of anti-government protesters two days earlier. There was also an anti-government rally in Hodeida on the Red Sea coast. Five protesters were wounded when security forces opened fire.
There is clearly a standoff as each side blames the other for not showing flexibility or willingness to implement the unsigned accord. Saleh’s official spokesmen accuse the opposition of being divided and weak. While there are grains of truth in this allegation, it applies equally to the regime. Two months ago when the protest started, Saleh promised not to stand for re-election in 2013. He also said his sons would not contest either. This was unacceptable to the opposition and protests continued. Defection of high-ranking military officers and tribal leaders followed. Under pressure, Saleh then said he would leave at the end of the year.
The other argument he has frequently cited is he wants power to be transferred to a “safe pair of hands.” This has become a buzzword with most dictators. They only want power transferred to someone they trust so that their ill-gotten wealth is not touched. But Saleh should know, as Egypt shows, that even the safest pair of hands can change and turn on the very benefactor that handed them power.
Continuation and escalation of opposition protests scared the already frightened Saudis even more. They realize that massive protests in a neighbouring country are bound to arouse similar sentiments in the kingdom. The panicked Saudis called a meeting of the GCC in Riyadh. It is interesting to note that while Yemen is not a member of the GCC, this grouping of illegitimate rulers huddled in Riyadh to find a solution lest the situation blew up in their faces. Last March the Saudis had used the Arab League platform to push a no-fly resolution against Libya. That only 11 out of 22 members attended the meeting and only nine endorsed the resolution was considered enough of a fig leaf by the West to push a similar resolution in the UN Security Council on March 16 to launch bombing raids on Libya. On April 30, a NATO strike on Qaddafi’s home killed his youngest son, Said al-Arab and his three children.
In Yemen’s case, the Saudis have not called for a no-fly zone or imposed sanctions against Saleh’s regime. Instead, they want to ease him out of power without causing too much damage elsewhere. It appears, however, that Saleh is unwilling to go so easily. He may have to be pushed out.
Until now, the Americans were backing their long-time Yemeni ally. Seleh was seen as a bulwark against al-Qaeda where a branch of the organization exists. He had also given a free hand to the US to launch drone attacks against suspected militants. With ongoing protests, the Americans fear the regime’s authority is breaking down rapidly and it can only strengthen and embolden al-Qaeda to launch attacks against US interests and even spread into Saudi Arabia. Yemeni troops have been financed and trained by the US to target suspected militants and tribesmen opposed to foreign interference in their affairs. In view of Osama bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan by American Special Forces on May 1, there may be intensification of al-Qaeda operations in Yemen.
Like protest movements elsewhere, in Yemen too the youth are spearheading the campaign. Many old guard opposition figures are seen as tainted and tamed by Saleh. The protest movement has drawn strength from high-level defections, including diplomats, ministers and the country’s top military officers. Young leaders of the movement have also stated categorically that they would settle for nothing less than the immediate and unconditional resignation of Saleh.
As the protests continue to escalate, Saleh’s hold on power becomes increasingly untenable. International pressure is also beginning to mount. If this continues, it is highly unlikely that he would be able to cling to power for too long. What will happen to the House of Saud then is an open question.
Winds of change are definitely blowing in the desert and blowing away long-pegged tents in the sand. Muslims will truly be able to rejoice once the House of Saud is also consigned to the dustbin of history. That day may not be too far but it will require a lot more effort than has hitherto been exerted.