The Middle East Channel

Any way out for Yemen?

"Why do you guys in the West keep falling for the same old tricks?" Yusif Al-Ra'adi, a lean-looking student who passed up his studies in engineering back in May to join his country's uprising, told me as we sat in the shade of a sheet of blue tarpaulin in Sana'a's Change Square. "He [Saleh] has no intention whatsoever of stepping down, it's a dance, this is a political agreement that really means nothing to us." 

Such skepticism throws cold water on the hopes raised by Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh's decree this week granting his deputy the right to sign a deal with the opposition for a transfer of power. Saleh is currently in Saudi Arabia recovering from chest wounds he sustained in a booby-trap bombing of his palace in early June. He surprised observers with an announcement that Yemen's Vice President, Abed Mansour Hadi, could now sign a deal drawn up by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which offers Saleh immunity in exchange for early presidential elections. A peaceful way out of this year's bout of bloody demonstrations and swirling financial and political turmoil might still be on the cards.

But the sense of optimism rippling though the pages of western newspapers has been much harder to detect here on the grubby streets of the capital, Sana'a. "No deal, no maneuvering, the president should leave!" was the cry that rang out through the city on Tuesday as tens of thousands of men, women, and children spilled out onto the streets to decry the latest attempt by the country's president to evade pressure to step down. Yemen's beleaguered but tenacious demonstrators have endured months of bloody repression, tit for tat political negotiations, and hollow concessions. Now -- unsurprisingly -- they say that Saleh's agreement delegating "constitutional capabilities" to his deputy is nothing but a ploy by the embattled leader to buy himself more time. 

 

The decree certainly has its shortfalls. While Hadi technically now has the ability to sign Saleh's premiership away, Saleh retains the right to reject the deal if he desires. Yemenis have learned over the years not to put much faith in Saleh's promises. More importantly, there is no reference to the fate of the institution currently propping up the regime in Saleh's absence: the armed forces, large portions of which remain under the control of Saleh's son, nephew, and cousins.

For all those problems, the deal might still look attractive to some parts of the opposition. With Yemen locked into a seemingly unbreakable stalemate between an absentee president and a fractured opposition coalition in the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), some analysts are touting early presidential elections as a potential escape route to Yemen's political turmoil. But while the JMP might jump at the chance to face off against Saleh and his ruling party in the polls it's unlikely that elections would do anything to placate the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who remain camped out in tented shantytowns across the country.

"Presidential elections now will only replace one dictator with another. The youth expect a genuine solution and not a democracy charade," says Salem Ben Mubarak, a leading member of a coordinating council on Facebook called the Youth Revolution for Change. "We want fundamental constitutional changes and fundamental government behavioral change and we will not rest until our demands are met." Salem's views echo that of thousands of other youthful pro-democracy protesters who feel that the formal opposition in its ongoing negotiations with the incumbent regime is selling them down the river. As the days drag by, Salem and his counterparts fear that their peaceful pro-democracy movement will soon be eclipsed by Yemen's tribal warlords and military chiefs who've been jockeying for position in Saleh's absence.

For now Saleh's strategy appears to be working -- as he drags the hoped for transition out, the patchy alliance of anti-Saleh actors is starting to splinter. For the first time in months the painful issue of north-south division (North and South Yemen were unified under Saleh in 1990, but southerners often accuse the north of discrimination) has resurfaced and is preventing opposition groups from forming a solid and united front. 

But protest leaders, who point to the large and ongoing demonstrations, hope for something more. "There should be comprehensive reforms in the country's governmental institutions," argues Alaa Aj Jarban, a young protest leader from the southern port city of Aden. He, like other protestors, calls for a referendum on the political system, and elections for president and the government. And unlike some Arab protest movements, Jarban is eager for international assistance, especially financial and technical assistance to "help Yemenis build a new democratic and civil country."

As Saleh continues to ponder his next move in Riyadh, "the situation," as locals call it here, is growing increasingly desperate. Frustration is giving way to outright anger as the cost of food and fuel continues to skyrocket in a country where some 40 percent of the population of 23 million people live on less than $2 a day and one third face chronic hunger. For those unable to afford petrol-powered generators, electricity is now a fleeting luxury, flicking on for an hour each day and off again for ten. Indeed, the United Nations has recently accused the government of trying to pressure and punish the civilian population by cutting off access to electricity, fuel, and water.

How things play out in the next few weeks will be determined by whether the United States and Yemen's neighbors in the gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, become convinced that the impending collapse of Yemen merits a more interventionist role. So far their only real achievement has been to keep Saleh in Saudi Arabia who despite giving periodic reminders that he'll be "returning to Sana'a soon," seems unlikely to be flying back anytime in the near future. Otherwise, with political negotiations continually flopping, Yemen's economy faltering, and tensions running high among protesters on the ground, the fate of this impoverished country will end up being thrashed out by Yemen's fractious armed forces and powerful tribal chiefs.  Yemen's tenacious democratic protest movement deserves something more. 

Tom Finn is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Ahmadinejad's impotence

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant to kick off his annual visit to the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York with the grand gesture of releasing two U.S. hikers held captive for over a year. Instead, he was humiliated in public by Iran's powerful judiciary, which stated on Wednesday that the president could not fulfill that promise.

Nothing could more clearly symbolize Ahmadinejad's fading fortunes. Gone is the self-confident rhetorician of revolutionary outrage and nationalist fervor. In his place stands a broken man. The hikers' episode is only one more piece of evidence that the last eight months have proven to be the beginning to the end of the president's political career. Ahmadinejad's U.N. speech will probably be as loquacious as ever, and may contain interesting surprises -- such as his declaration last year that it was the United States Government which launched the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But his words should not be taken as a message from anyone other than Ahmadinejad.

Even before the judiciary embarrassed Ahmadinejad, many in Tehran doubted that the president would be allowed to travel to the U.N. General Assembly to deliver the official speech on September 22. The institutions and political elites which once formed the bedrock of his power have all left him, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence minister, and important conservative clerics. The president has challenged the authority and legitimacy of supreme clerical rule, and he cast doubt on the divine attributes of the clergy -- without which the Islamic Republic could not exist in anything like its present form. At this point, it is unclear whether Ahmadinejad will even be allowed to finish out his term.

In recent days, as if to run victory laps around the president, key regime figures have all made it clear that the president's political faction -- labeled by his foes as the "deviant faction" -- will not be permitted to run candidates in parliamentary elections in March. The word "deviant" stems from the desire of Ahmadinejad and his cronies to do away with the traditional structures of cleric rule. His in-law and closest confidant, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaiee, who has been completely ostracized from the regime, has repeatedly made statements hinting at his disregard for the way Shiite jurisprudence is interpreted, practiced, and enforced by the clerical establishment.

In a Friday prayer speech on August 31 to celebrate the end of Ramadan, Ayatollah Khamnei acknowledged the lack of unity among the factions within the regime and noted the shortcomings of the current government -- a rare admission but one aimed directly at Ahmadinejad and his administration. "Elections are the manifestation of religious democracy," said Khamenei. "However, enemies seek to misuse elections to harm the country." Here, the word "enemies" is not a reference to traditional adversaries, such as the United States or Israel, but to Ahmadinejad's political faction, which has caused havoc within the regime.

According to Ali Falahian, Iran's former intelligence minister, the traditional conservatives are now drafting a list of potential candidates for the parliamentary elections, but it will not include representatives from Ahmadinejad's faction. "Drawing clear boundaries with the deviant faction is one of the main goals of conservatism," he said. He also chastised those who have remained silent as Ahmadinejad defied orders from Khamenei and many other senior clerics over the last several months. 

As for the release of the hikers, it was clear even as Ahmadinejad made the announcement on Tuesday in the U.S. media that the decision was not made by him. In an interview with the Washington Post, Ahmadinejad referred to the release of the hikers as a "unilateral humanitarian gesture." When pressed for a guarantee for the release of the two hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, Ahmadinejad enigmatically replied, "I hope so. I hope I will do that," according to the Post.

Ahmadinejad's inability to know what he will do next is due to the fact that Iran's judiciary, not its executive, presides over the fate of the two U.S. men. Having recently lost a fierce, drawn-out battle against the loyalists supporting the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad is anxious to appear relevant on the world stage and simultaneously reluctant to admit he does not have the final say in the two hikers' case.

This is not Ahmadinejad's first clash with the Iranian judiciary. His attempts to annex certain key government ministries to his control, such as trying to create a parallel foreign ministry and takeover the oil ministry last spring, were one of the key drivers of his political downfall. In a pointed counterattack, the judiciary began corruption proceedings against a number of high-ranking pro-Ahmadinejad officials within the executive's highest levels. Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary, and his brother, Ali Larijani, head of the legislature, are both inveterate critics of Ahmadinejad and his camp and have worked hard to ensure his political faction is finished.

Ahmadinejad has long served as the much-needed anti-Israeli foil, the embodiment of a modern Iran, which is a strange mix of Islamic orthodoxy, post-revolutionary nationalism, and Third World Marxist-socialism. Until the Arab awakening, he was also a hero for Arabs as the U.S. irritant par excellence. Now, the Arabs have found their own, direct means to defy the United States and Israel.

But his usefulness has come to an end. As he distracted the world with his rhetorical excesses, Iran moved ahead steadily with its nuclear program and extended its reach into Iraq and other countries in the region. The paradox of today's Iran is that it is the ruling elites who have rendered him politically irrelevant, not the protesters demonstrating in the squares of downtown Tehran. For many Iranians, this is a blessing and also a tragedy: while Ahmadinejad makes his exit, the regime is still alive and well. 

Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at the Century Foundation. Shayan Ghajar and Reza Akbari, researchers for the program, contributed to this article.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Image