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Yemen, Ali Abdallah Saleh, Revolution and Cautious Excitement

Saturday night the news broke that Yemeni president and dictator Ali Abdallah Saleh had been critically injured and flown to Saudi Arabia. Many remembered Tunisian ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s sudden, unanticipated exit to Saudi Arabia, and looked towards Yemen with disbelief and cautious excitement.

Did the long awaited Yemeni domino just fall?

The Committee of the Youth Groups is calling for all political powers in Yemen to start forming a temporary presidential council that represents all presidential powers to create a transitional government.Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is officially in power as an acting president. Many theorize that it is odd that Saleh was not treated in Yemen, and may be using Riyadh as a graceful exit point. Others argue that the Saudis orchestrated Saleh’s departure, as they also “coincidentally” took six other high-ranking Yemeni tribal leaders to be treated at the same hospital. Still others see no reason why Saleh wouldn’t return once he recovers sometime within the next two weeks.

Though the people are flooding the streets and waving the Yemeni flag in a well-deserved celebration of Saleh’s departure, no one really knows what is going to happen next. It could just as easily be a milestone of the Yemeni revolution as it could a return to business as usual while the country sinks further into violent chaos and civil war.

Inspired by successful protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemen quickly began organizing nonviolent demonstrations demanding the end to dictator Ali Abdallah Saleh’s regime. The economic conditions that pushed Tunisia and Egypt towards revolution –dwindling job opportunities, soaring food prices, and persistent inflation are only exacerbated in Yemen, the poorest country in the poverty stricken Middle East. Forty per cent of the country lives on less than two dollars per day while extravagant oil revenues are embezzled and wasted by the Saleh regime, another corrupt, kleptocratic, US-backed dictatorship waiting to be overthrown.

Like many other Arab dictators, President Saleh is the modern day equivalent of a tyrannical sultan, reigning over Yemen unquestioned for over thirty years. Despite several promises to cede power, both before and during the recent uprisings, he has ultimately backed out of each agreement, using an illusion of leniency to retain his absolute reign. He frequently legitimizes himself, claiming that he is the only leader capable of leading a united Yemeni state (he successfully united South Yemen with the Northern Arab Republic of Yemen in 1990). Ironically, Yemen has achieved unprecedented national unity through uniting against him.

Though the protests began strictly as a student-led youth movement, soon numerous opposition forces –Islamists, secessionists, political opposition parties, and tribal confederations threw their support behind the protestors, advocating for peaceful revolution. Though Yemen is characteristically regionally, culturally, and tribally divided, the country overlooked these differences once it discovered its shared disgust for Saleh’s regime.

Despite many mainstream media outlets’ claim that Yemen’s internal divisions will likely turn on each other in Saleh’s absence, it seems that Yemen is eager to prove that it can remain united. The protestors eagerly agreed to and are complying with a ceasefire and seem far more preoccupied with celebrating and planning a transitional government than stirring internal strife.

Washington is less eager to celebrate Saleh’s pending departure.

Although the United States government has poured millions of dollars of aid into Yemen, it has been exclusively military aid. This money is intended to combat Al Qaeda operations and hunt down terrorists on what is thought to be Al Qaeda’s primary training base. None of this aid addresses Yemen’s extreme poverty. In exchange for extensive foreign aid, President Ali Abdallah Saleh has given the United States permission to wage a secret war in Yemen including bombings of AQAP (a branch of Al Qaeda) camps and other full-scale CIA military operations on Yemeni soil. Last year WikiLeaks cables revealed that Saleh’s government not only permits these attacks, but claims responsibility in the event of civilian deaths.

So far, these operations have followed a predictable trend where hundreds of thousands of dollars of military aid is deployed, not much terrorism is countered, and many civilians suffer from the physical and psychological turmoil of living in an occupied war zone.

Like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh is the lenient uncle that lets the United States do whatever it pleases with little consequence. In exchange for these favors, Saleh’s government has become fluent in “jihadistspeak,” playing on the Pentagon’s unrelenting obsession with Al Qaeda to coax them to give more and more military aid. Saleh’s alliance with Washington falls into a familiar vicious cycle of mutually enabling corruption, embezzling foreign aid in exchange for secret wars all the while ignoring the needs of civil society.

For those of us closely watching the Arab Spring, and advocating for revolution, it has been difficult to watch Yemen’s struggle. Yemen does not have the same glamour of Tunisia as a French ex colony and popular vacation destination or international recognition as Egypt as the geographic and cultural center of the Arab world. Unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian protestors, Yemeni protestors were rarely educated, literate, or able to connect to the Internet in a crucial way that broadcast their uprisings generating the international solidarity that lead to eventual overthrow. As far as the west is concerned, this is a good thing. If democracy jumped across the red sea, where ever would secret CIA operations do their indiscriminate bombings?

To the west, Yemen is first and foremost an Al Qaeda training camp; the people, poor, Muslim, tribal, and loosely organized are hardly worth acknowledging. When acknowledged, the western media treats them as tribal and barbaric, even more incapable of unifying or deciding their own future than other countries. However, the Yemeni people have experienced many of the same vast injustices, frustrations, and small victories of other Arab states. They have just experienced it without the accompanying global outrage.

Perhaps Yemen’s time for freedom, or at least recognition, has finally arrived.

Front page photo: “Al Thoura” poster by The Egyptian Liberal, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.