The massacre the Yemeni regime committed against civilian protesters on March 18 was horrific, a true act of tyranny by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Gunmen opened fire from rooftops on a demonstration in the capital of Sanaa, resulting in at least 50 confirmed deaths, a strong affirmation that the president’s regime was not going to bow to anti-government demands anytime soon.
On this day, and since unrest first began to mount several months ago, Saleh’s crimes have been buffered by a silent accomplice: the international community.
On March 21, a large contingent of the Yemeni army joined the protesters in their demands, prompting a flood of diplomatic and high-level governmental resignations throughout the country and at embassies around the world. Remarkably, one of these defections was on the part of Ali Mohsenal-Ahmar, the President’s half brother and the leader of the military campaigns against the Shia Houthi movement in the North.
Despite the proverbial writing seemingly on the wall, the international world for the most part remained silent, with only one exception— French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who said on March 21: “We estimate today that the departure of President Saleh is unavoidable.”
During the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Western leaders were also very slow to react, toeing the line before putting their weight behind populist movements once their momentum appeared unstoppable. This may yet occur in Yemen. But as of late March, the specter of Al Qaeda and a ‘failed state‘ in the Persian Gulf seems to have their tongues tied.
To combat Al Qaeda, the United States has promised $300 million in military and security aid this year, but currently a portion of that assistance is being diverted to help suppress this popular revolt; on March 12 embarrassing photographs surfaced in the media of American-made tear gas canisters used against protesters. This is not the first time that Saleh has used such funds for purposes unrelated to the fight against Islamic extremism; as an October 2010 Foreign Policy article details, the money has also helped fund the suppression of a separatist movement in the south, which Saleh disingenuously alleges is led by Al Qaeda.
The US has pledged $125 million per year in non-military aid to the country for development projects as well. As extremism is often a by-product of poverty, these efforts are welcome, but their effectiveness is diluted by chronic mismanagement and siphoning of funds by the Saleh regime. Yemen ranked 154 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index and has long been adept at preventing financial resources from spreading among the people. While these efforts to assist Yemen’s economy are correct in spirit, they ignore the crucial point: so long as Saleh, or an equally corrupt and unpopular alternative is in power, no progress will be made in the fight against Al Qaeda or against the poverty that shelters it.
While it is difficult to compute the importance of public opinion in international affairs, Western leaders are doing themselves no favors by unconditionally supporting their strong man. The September 11, 2001attacks and subsequent plots should have reinforced the notion that military force often emboldens ideology. Apparently, the “hearts and minds” strategy of Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t come into play in Yemen.
On March 13, United States Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein asked rhetorically, “If Saleh leaves now, what will Yemenis do? His departure is not the solution”. This is a gross underestimation of the Yemeni people’s will. Such a statement, together with impotent calls for “restraint” from Hillary Clinton following the March 18 events, are unlikely to be forgotten.
In Egypt, the final thread holding up the Mubarak regime was US support, without which Mubarak conceded (though not without suspense). For President Saleh, that thread is more of an umbilical cord, and somebody should have fetched the scissors by now.
Farea Al-Muslimi is a Yemeni activist and writer for Almasdar