President Ali Abdullah Saleh had planned for May 22, the 21st anniversary of Yemeni unity, to be a celebration of his leadership. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Obama administration hoped for the same date to witness an historic signing agreement whereby Saleh would agree to transfer power in deference to more than three months of mass, nationwide popular protests demanding his resignation. Both sets of plans were scuttled by a bizarre diplomatic incident in which American and GCC ambassadors had to be rescued from a pro-Saleh mob. With those thugs on a rampage, it became obvious that Saleh would rather fight than switch.
Three speeches served as a prelude to the now perilous crisis. In his address on the Middle East on Thursday, President Obama devoted only a single line to Yemen: "President Saleh should carry through on his commitment to transfer power. " Secretary Clinton repeated this credulous phrase the next day. But Saleh’s speeches and his supporters’ actions in the next couple of days showed he had no intention of fulfilling his promises to sign onto a GCC-brokered deal whereby he was to relinquish power in exchange for immunity from prosecution. To the contrary, he followed up on a long-standing threat to provoke a civil war. If disaster is to be averted at this point, a bold initiative from the Friends of Yemen donor’s club, which keeps the regime afloat, is urgently needed.
At noon on Friday May 20, President Saleh took the imposing reviewing stand at the Sabaeen military parade grounds, named for its location on Road 70 in Sana’a, to reiterate his oft-stated counter-offer to orchestrate new elections. Such elections would be in keeping, he said, with the constitution, democracy, security, stability, unity, and steadfastness against separation, defection, insurrection, and disorder. A good-sized crowd of ruling party loyalists in the stadium waving larger-than-life portraits of the President and banners praising his leadership chanted: "The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh." The president smiled and waved, acknowledging the manufactured acclaim of his people.
Initially this was reported abroad as if Saleh was following through on his "commitment" to transfer power: "Saleh calls for new elections," read the headlines. But 24 hours later, at mid-day Saturday May 21, Saleh, still in a business suit and sporting a baby-blue tie, gave a more bellicose and defiant speech to uniformed armed forces, members of government, and ruling party officials assembled in formation at Sabaeen stadium. Speaking as one campaigning for re-election rather than a ruler ready to relinquish power, he boasted that for 32 years he and his General People’s Congress had guided the nation to "security and stability," as well as democracy, culture, oil discoveries, development, and freedom.
In that address, he explicitly incited his Midan Sabaeen supporters against the pro-democracy demonstrators in Midan al-Taghayir ("Change Plaza"). The agitation in Midan Taghayir is "amaliyyah inqalabiyyah," he said, an insurrectionary operation. It is instigated from abroad, he declared implausibly, by the Muslim Brotherhood — with financial backing from the Gulf Cooperation Council. Protesters clamoring for his downfall had been infiltrated by al Qaeda, he alleged, perhaps hoping to trigger Western fears. Indeed, he warned "our friends in the U.S. and the EU" that should his regime fall, al Qaeda would seize control of the unruly provinces of Mar’ib, Hadramawt, Shabwa, Abyan, and al-Jawf.
Saleh challenged the "youth," as he and others call the altruistic pro-democracy protesters, to form a proper political party to articulate their demands. He even offered to coach them to constitute a lawful opposition. Recalling how easily his GPC had won the last couple of rounds of (increasingly bogus) presidential and parliamentary elections, he confidently predicted future victories by the "party of parties," the "party of the present and the future."
On the eve of Unity Day, it still seemed that he might put his signature to an accord offered by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf bank-rollers of his regime. An astute Yemeni observer, Jamila Ali Raja, told Al Jazeera that she expected Saleh to sign the GCC pact, along with members of the formal parliamentary opposition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) who had already agreed to the transfer of power. Saleh had long since insisted that he would only step aside if the more than 100 days of demonstrations and civil disobedience came to an end. Since the multitudes demanding his demise had not been part of negotiations and were unlikely to desist, she reasoned, he could acquiesce and then find excuses to renege on his promise. A month and immunity from prosecution already offered plenty of wiggle-room.
Instead, the President invented formulaic, spurious pretexts for not putting his signature on a pact he had already twice promised and twice refused to sign: he wanted a public signing ceremony in his offices. On May 22, while tens of thousands of his opponents re-assembled in Change Square in Sana’a and other cities and towns, Saleh’s supporters took his assertions that the GCC diplomats were engaged in "insurrection operations" a bit too literally. An armed throng of loyalists surrounded the Sana’a embassy of the United Arab Emirates where GCC, American, and British ambassadors were awaiting a signing ceremony. For a couple of hours, they were trapped in the embassy. Then, they were ferried by helicopter or armored Presidential vehicles to the Presidential Palace. There, for the third time, Saleh declined to put pen to paper.
The Gulf envoys washed their hands of the deal. Secretary of State Clinton expressed dismay and re-worded her call for Saleh to immediately carry through on his commitments. The U.S. embassy closed its consular section and battened the hatches. Paris called Saleh "irresponsible;" Brussels expressed alarm.
By nightfall on Unity Day, armed gangs were blocking roads and setting fires in Sana’a, Ibb, Ma’rib, Hodeida, and other cities. Exchanges of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades were heard in numerous locations. The next day, May 23, even Yemen TV, where normally all news is happy news, reported clashes between loyalist and mutinous elements of the armed forces. Two prominent defectors from the regime, a top general and an important tribal leaders, have joined the fray in an open bid for power. The democracy protesters and the JMP leaders are now suddenly on the sidelines of ferocious battles.
This could easily be the point of no return, beyond which lies the Somalia scenario and a pitiable end to months of hopeful, creative, pro-reform energies by hundreds of thousands of Yemenis. But there is still a hope for effective multilateral diplomatic intervention — the so-called Friends of Yemen donor’s club on whose aid and technical assistance the regime depends. The Friends of Yemen is comprised of Germany, USA, UK, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Spain, Netherlands, Turkey, Russia, France and Italy, plus the Gulf Cooperation Council, the European Union, the United Nations, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, the Khalifa bin Zayed Charity Foundation, and implicitly the World Bank. The Yemeni economy relies on their good graces. This group’s delegations should meet in emergency session and explain to Yemen’s government its imminent bankruptcy if a ceasefire with a plan for a transitional civilian government is not put into effect immediately. Perhaps money and a more concerted diplomatic initiative can yet succeed where low-key diplomacy has failed.
Sheila Carapico is professor of political science at the University of Richmond and the American University in Cairo.