See original article on the Guardian’s Comment is Free
During the last few days, Britain, the US and other western countries have warned against travel to Yemen and urged citizens who are already there to consider leaving. This situation is being blamed on civil unrest and a high threat of terrorist attacks.
After more than a month of street protests calling for President Ali Abdullah Salih to resign, last week the opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) put forward a five-point plan requiring him to step down at the end of this year.
Salih rejected that and, with his back to the wall, played the tried and trusted al-Qaida card. He claimed that terrorists were taking advantage of the political unrest to carry out further attacks against the Yemeni government and foreign interests in the country.
Hours after clashes broke out between pro-government and anti-government protesters in Ibb city, south of the capital, the authorities swiftly issued a statement claiming that the military was engaging al-Qaida militants in Marib.
Much to Salih’s chagrin, local sources indicate that the alleged al-Qaida militants were most likely just rowdy locals. According to Gregory Johnsen, Yemen expert and author of the Waq al-Waq blog: “At this point there is no evidence in the public sphere to suggest that AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] has decided which road it should go down.”
What’s more, as Yemen’s Islamist opposition party, Islah, has joined the protest, Salih is screaming “caliphate” to the Americans. As is the case with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islah party is pluralistic and not as dangerous as the soon-to-be-deposed leader would make it out to be.
The Islah party is split into four wings and, unfortunately, one of those wings is made up of Salafis, a fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam. The Salafist wing’s leader, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, gave a speech at the Sana’a University sit-in where he expressed his desire to establish an Islamic caliphate in Yemen after Salih’s departure. However, judging by the horrified looks on the faces of protesters after his statement, there is little chance that a washed-up, elderly religious fanatic is going to have much say in a new government.
The question remains, though: is the west taking Salih’s bait?
In a shocking display of inanity, Hilary Clinton claimed last Thursday that Iran was “very much involved” in Yemen’s protest movement. Taking a card right out of Salih’s playbook, the US has made Iran the scapegoat in Yemen yet again. After Salih blamed a US-Israeli conspiracy for unrest, Clinton’s statement sounds just as ridiculous.
In a meeting with British nationals last week, Jonathan Wilks, the UK ambassador, said an increased AQAP threat is part of the reason why the foreign office has asked Britons to leave. The US state department has also cited a rising al-Qaida threat.
Considering that the British diplomatic and security presence in Yemen is only marginally active, one has to wonder where they are getting their information about AQAP activity from. Taking into account that a British diplomatic convoy was attacked last October, it’s safe to say that their intelligence isn’t the greatest.
Similarly, a truckload (literally) of CIA officers was attacked last December while waiting for a takeaway pizza outside a restaurant in the capital’s affluent Hadda district. Of course, no one without security clearance can know for sure what the US intelligence-gathering capabilities are in Yemen, but if CIA officers can’t order a pizza without getting a grenade thrown under their car, it’s difficult to put much confidence in it.
In the meantime, the opposition JMP has a real opportunity to make a bid for power. When members of Yemen’s ruling party say their country is not like Egypt and Tunisia, they are mostly just trying to convince people there won’t be a revolution. However, one significant difference is the marginal political freedom that is tolerated under the Salih regime. The political opposition is (somewhat) organised and coordinating with demonstrators.
JMP leaders such as prominent tribal sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar are doing everything in their power to bring demonstrators all over Yemen under the JMP umbrella. According to al-Ahmar, the only way to preserve unity is to make their party’s candidate for president someone from the country’s south, where secessionist sentiments are strong. In an interview, al-Ahmar said that he would personally vote for Yaseen Saeed No’man, secretary-general of the Yemeni Socialist party and a native southerner.
With that sort of adept political sense, the JMP may just steal the show without ever having to sleep in a protest tent in front of Sana’a University.