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Democracy is the best antidote to al-Qa’ida

2011 March 22
by Paul Vallely

The real test of the nature of the awakening sweeping across the Arab world will not come in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Bahrain. It could come in Yemen where President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years, yesterday made a Mubarak-like promise to stand down, but not just yet.

Thousands of young people have kept unrelenting street vigils for democracy in its capital Sanaa since the end of February when protestors in Egypt sent Hosni Mubarak into exile. But the situation in Yemen came to a crisis after a bloody assault by government henchmen killed more than 50 protestors after prayers on Friday. Scores of high-ranking government officials, including five top military leaders, have defected. Among them are the president’s half-brother and Yemen’s envoy to the Arab League. President Saleh has warned his army commanders that the country could descend into civil war – and promised to stand down after parliamentary elections next year.

Until now the Saleh regime has been a key ally of the United States in the counterterrorist struggle against al-Qa’ida. Yemen – a country dogged by poverty, tribalism and central government dysfunction – has been the base from which al-Qa’ida launched attacks against targets in the US and Saudi Arabia. The groups known as AQP (Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula) are regarded by Washington as a graver threat even than Osama bin Laden’s people around the Afghan-Pakistan border. Yemen was the source of failed bombs on US airliners in 2009 and 2010 and the shooting rampage at Fort Hood.

Yemen teeters on the edge of being a failed state. It is the Arab world’s poorest country. Its little oil and natural gas is running out, as is water in the north of the country. Many areas have no access to electricity. It is poorly developed, with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment at 35 percent, and higher for young people. As a society is violent, poor and tribal: its north has Sunnis and Zaidi Shiites; the middle has a mix of Sufis and hardline Salafis; the south has a separatist movement around the southern port city of Aden. President Saleh has for three decades attempted to manage all this by balancing tribal rivalries rather than through state-building or national unity.

But Washington’s classic regional ambivalence over the choice between stability and democracy appears to have reached a tipping point with the recent massacre of protestors. Saleh, who has received millions in US aid for his fight against Islamic militants, is on the point of being abandoned. The Yemini president has insisted that he cannot stand down without knowing who is replacing him, which is why he says he won’t go until after elections. The problem is that Saleh has tried such ruses before. He has made promises of reform which proved hollow. Last week he offered a new constitution giving more powers to parliament and announced an array of handouts. But few Yeminis believe he will deliver.

It is time for Ali Abdullah Saleh to go. He need have no approval over who will succeed him. It is true that the struggle of competing visions for the future of Yemen will not end when Saleh leaves. But there is greater risk of this key strategic country, which borders the world’s biggest oil exporter and several major shipping routes, slipping into chaos if Saleh does not go soon and a bloody conflict ensues. That could even see the country split into separate zones along tribal, military or regional lines. A failed state looms.

The genuine participation by all sides in an open and transparent process that addresses the needs and concerns of the Yemeni people is now required. Al-Qa’ida has thrived in Yemen in opposition to the US-backed autocracy. Democracy is the best antidote to al-Qa’ida in the Arab world.

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