The Middle East Channel

Yemenis turn out to vote despite southern violence

Yemenis queued early Tuesday morning as polls opened for Yemen's presidential election. With only one candidate in the race, Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, the election has been described as more similar to a referendum: Citizens are merely voting to confirm the transfer of power to Hadi according to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) power-transition deal outlining the end of the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The plan called for Hadi to take the position for an interim two-year period, at which time there would be presidential and parliamentary elections. After casting his vote, Hadi said, "Elections are the only exit route from the crisis which has buffeted Yemen for the past year." According to Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, the election is not about voting for a single candidate, "but to pave the way for Yemen to go forward. This is basically about restarting the nation from scratch." Despite extensive security measures, there were several instances of violence concentrated mostly in the southern port city of Aden. In one attack, a 10-year-old child was among four people killed when southern separatists and police clashed near the election commission's Aden headquarters. The southern movement called for a boycott of the election and a day of "civil disobedience." Regardless, a turnout of up to 80 percent is expected in what many Yemenis say is a critical first step to reform, despite the challenges ahead.

Headlines  

  • Syrian forces continue shelling several districts of Homs and fired upon protesters in Damascus. Meanwhile, Russia said it will not attend the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunisia.
  • Israeli Defense Forces diffused an explosive device found on Israel's border with Egypt.
  • Iran said it will participate in talks but maintained its "peaceful" nuclear program is non-negotiable, and is increasing measures "to protect nuclear sites."
  • Israel has agreed to release a Palestinian prisoner held without charge who has been on a hunger strike for over nine months.
  • Saudi Arabia announced its ambassador to Jordan will also serve as ambassador to Iraq, acting as the first envoy to the country since 1990.

Arguments & Analysis

Syria -- Economist Debates (Husain & Hamid et al., The Economist)

In an ongoing Economist debate, Ed Husain and Shadi Hamid square off on the debate motion: "This house believes that military intervention in Syria would do more harm than good."

Ed Husain (for the motion):

Cooler heads must prevail in Western governments. Diplomatic options have not yet been fully exhausted. After the Iraq debacle, we cannot choose military options over diplomacy so readily. In the great game to bring down Iran, and to strengthen Israel, do not go through Syria. Syria will prove to be yet another deadly, expensive detour for the West. Think Iraq, but compounded by sectarianism and regional contagion.

Shadi Hamid:

Opponents of the military option will often point to the regional fallout that would result from military intervention. They do not always, however, point to the regional escalation that is already occurring without military intervention. Iran and Russia are actively supporting one side in a civil war, supplying the Syrian military with arms, equipment and technical expertise. Indeed, many of the supposed risks of intervention have already come to pass and will continue to grow worse in the absence of more determined action on the part of the international community.

‘Israeli leader wrongly blames UN and Arab States for Palestinian refugees' (Leila Hilal, The Atlantic)

"Ayalon's primary criticism of the UNRWA is that it has failed to resolve a single case of Palestinian displacement, and that responsibility for the refugees should be handed over to the global refugee agency -- the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) -- so that Palestinians can be treated somewhat like refugees from other crisis areas such as Bosnia, Congo, or Darfur. This would actually subverts his own argument for resettlement, though; UNHCR's long-standing policy, based in international law, is that the preferred durable solution for refugees is voluntary return. Voluntary local integration and third-country resettlement are considered alternatives where repatriation is undesirable or not possible. In other words, if Palestinians were to be treated like refugees from Bosnia or other conflict zones, the international community would be forced to address their long-standing demand to choose whether to return to their place of origin -- namely Israel."

‘The Maghreb's Islamists must look West' (Moha Ennaji, The Daily Star)

"There are also concerns about inexperienced Islamist officials' ability to run finance ministries. But the region's Islamist parties appear to be conscious of these risks, and determined to mitigate them. They know that they need economic growth to curb unemployment and pay for social services, so they are working to bolster the private sector. In many cases, they are even advocating the kind of free-market policies that their secular predecessors favored. Those policies should include trade liberalization. Until now, less than 2 percent of the Maghreb countries' foreign trade has remained within the region. If the region's new leaders can integrate their economies, a market of more than 75 million consumers would attract more foreign investment and trade with the rest of the world."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Yemen's election might matter

With daily massacres in Homs and prosecution of U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cairo, the simmering conflict in Sanaa has faded into the background. Yet on February 21 attention will turn again to Yemen on the occasion of its presidential election. The election might seem hollow, as there is only one candidate in the race, however, it is still a pivotal step in Yemen's political transition -- and the United States should use this moment to press for a real shift away from the former regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The national vote could be more aptly named a referendum, as the current Vice President Abed Rabbo Hadi Mansour, who assumed temporary authority via a deal advanced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will be anointed Yemen's next leader barring any catastrophic outbreaks of violence.

While on the surface the election might seem like window-dressing at best, the psychological impact for Yemen of moving into the next phase is powerful. At a minimum, the election turns the page on decades of disappointment, despair, and disillusionment. And definitively removing Saleh from power could pave the way for opening new space for real political competition and accountable governance. He is a man who has ruled Yemen for 33 years, in his own words, "by dancing on the heads of snakes," through masterful skill in manipulating tribal alliances, political allegiances, and patronage networks. After prior pledges to leave power were reversed -- and months of hand-wringing when Saleh agreed to sign the deal and then three times reneged -- just having this official exit stamp is a relief.

Removal of the head does not, however, change the body of the snake. Much deeper changes are necessary, but it is essential to remember that Yemen is not starting from scratch and actually enjoys some advantages over other Arab countries. Unlike Egypt, Yemen has a culture of multi-party competition and coalition politics; unlike Libya, Yemen has a developed parliamentary process with strong committee structures; and unlike Tunisia, Yemen has a history of a dynamic civil society that defends human rights and the freedoms of press and expression. There is a foundation upon which to build in Yemen, but democracy advocates need international assistance and support, not only financial, but moral and ideological as well. If the United States and its allies support a status quo that prioritizes security cooperation at the expense of democratic gains, then the United States will jeopardize the long-term stability and prosperity of the Yemeni people. A weakened Yemen fosters a growing al Qaeda presence, which ultimately compromises U.S. security as well.

The country faces endemic challenges, many of which preceded the conflict, including dire economic conditions, pervasive unemployment, and poor access to clean water, fuel, and electricity for millions of citizens. Then there are the new problems that the GCC deal created, such as a blanket immunity clause for President Saleh and all his cohorts that is proving to be divisive and potentially catastrophic. At the same time, the military and security apparatus is still controlled by Saleh's son, nephews, and other family members. Furthermore, the deal was agreed upon by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of Yemeni opposition parties, but did not include other important groups with legitimate grievances, such as the southern secessionists, the Houthi rebels in the north, and the non-aligned youth activists.

Despite these shortcomings, the GCC agreement is the current best hope for political transition in Yemen. Assuming that Saleh does indeed depart the stage, the United States and its allies should weigh in forcefully on unresolved issues that will determine whether Yemen emerges as a nation with optimism and hope, or one that is hampered by a legacy of corruption, abuse, and neglect from the past three decades. Specifically, the United States should actively engage its military and intelligence counterparts to ensure that security sector restructuring occurs beyond a superficial level and does not leave the same old power brokers in place that compete for fiefdoms within the country. Since the immunity clause is unlikely to be reversed, the United States should support alternative transitional justice mechanisms to address the wounds of war, and should foster a National Dialogue process that is truly inclusive and incorporates youth voices, which have been largely marginalized up to this point.

To date, U.S. policy has centered on counterterrorism cooperation with Yemeni security forces and assistance to combat al Qaeda operatives. However, it is clear that a policy focused solely on military assistance, weapons, and drone attacks will not eliminate the threat of terrorism toward American targets. The United States should more forcefully advance an approach in Yemen that focuses on economic growth, sustainable development, transparent institutions, and the rule of law in order to create long-term stability that will benefit both the United States and Yemen. Moving forward, the United States and its allies should actively hold the new government accountable for the implementation of the deal, and at the same time, exert every effort to support the democratic forces that are still advocating real, legitimate political change, rather than simply being satisfied with Saleh's removal.

Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images