Saleh channels Mubarak

Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of Yemen, announced to parliament today that he will not run again in 2013. He was at least more eloquent than his mentor:  “No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock,” he said (this from someone who has made and broken the promise not to run previously).  This blatant copying of Egyptian President Mubarak’s approach to deflating protests is intended to fend off protests scheduled for tomorrow (why don’t Yemenis prefer Friday for protests?).  Saleh is also reported to be helping pro-regime elements get to the capital for the occasion.

There had been contradictory reports from Yemen on whether demonstrations there were serious or not. The Washington Post reported that democracy activists are divided from political opposition, and the regime handles both with skill and occasional brutality.  The demands of the political opposition have been relatively mild:  electoral and other reforms rather than the immediate departure of the president.

But if objective indicators mean anything, Yemen is still ripe for trouble, more likely of the state collapse than the revolutionary sort.  Here’s the short list of what ails it:

  • Water:  lacking and declining rapidly.
  • Oil:  also declining rapidly.
  • Rebellion:  in the north and the south.
  • Poverty:  big time.
  • Drugs:  qat, every day.
  • Autocrat:  Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power longer than Mubarak.
  • Role in the war on terror:  front line against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Dependence on the U.S.:  increasing.

I can’t think of any countries that come close to this litany of ailments, apart from Somalia (an instructive analogue, and just across the Bab el Mandeb).  Yemen may not have enough of a middle class to generate the kind of revolution of rising expectations that chased Ben Ali from Tunisia, and the population’s addiction to qat may make any revolution (or state collapse) more psychedelic than monochrome.  President Saleh has been trying hard to ease tensions by raising salaries, lowering taxes, promising not to steal another term, and asserting boldly that Yemen is not Tunisia.

It has been more than a year since a real expert on Yemen predicted:

If left unaddressed, Yemen’s problems could potentially destabilize Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. The inability of the Yemeni central government to fully control its territory will create space for violent extremists to regroup and launch attacks against domestic and international targets. The international community must be realistic about the limitations of intervention in Yemen. In the near term, however, inaction is not an option.

It may not be an option in the think-tank world, but it is pretty much what we’ve done. I certainly don’t think Christopher Boucek’s recommendations have been fully implemented, though U.S. assistance is increasing rapidly:

* Yemen must build local capacity in law enforcement and its legal and judicial systems by enacting counterterrorism legislation, passing terror finance laws, improving police training, and professionalizing the prison service.

* The Gulf states should make Yemen’s membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council contingent on tough steps, including progress on curbing government subsidies, addressing corruption, and enacting measures to curtail security concerns.

* U.S. aid to Yemen is disproportionately small given its importance to U.S. national security. Development assistance, education and technical cooperation, capacity building, institution strengthening, and direct financial assistance can better address the interconnected challenges facing Yemen than military and security aid.

So are we living on borrowed time in Yemen, or can President Saleh succeed using Mubarak’s tricks?

PS:  See also Unhappy Yemen: a White House view.

PPS:  See also from the February 4 New York Times. The headline is misleading.  She thinks he is safe for six months, maybe not more.

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Mubarak tries another kind of crackdown

The demonstrators remaining in Tahrir square this morning after yesterday’s massive protest calling for President Mubarak to step down immediately are now facing attack from pro-regime thugs.  This is a crackdown of another kind, a kind that will allow the regime to tell the Americans they didn’t use the security forces (and avoid the use of a conscript army, which might not like to crack heads).  Mubarak, having announced yesterday that he will not stand for election again in September, is hoping the violence will discourage any more protests and get Egyptians to choose stability over prolonged uncertainty.

The protesters are in a bind.  Yesterday was a tremendous show of their support in Egyptian society.  But Mubarak’s refusal to step down means they have to turn out a big crowd Friday to trump his recalcitrance.  The army, which had expressed sympathy with the protests, has now called for an end to demonstrations, and a lot of ordinary Egyptians will be getting impatient with the disruption of their lives.  Violent clashes today and tomorrow could scare off a lot of people and leave only a few, hard core protesters.  That would spell triumph for Mubarak.

So the right course of action, which in any event should be nonviolent, is whatever will ensure a big crowd on Friday.  I wouldn’t pretend to know what that is from Washington, DC.  That is a decision for those behind the protests, who have done really well so far and should be relied on to lead again. Made in Egypt is still the best way.

One thing the protesters will have to consider is the complex constitutional situation. Free and fair elections to choose a successor to Mubarak will not be possible under the present constitution. How do you get the constitution revised in a parliament that is 90% National Democratic Party (Mubarak guys) by September? What alternative is there?

I should note that the interpretation I offer above of the pro-regime thug attacks is open to debate.  Here is quite a different view, just in from the newly reopened internet in Cairo:

…[a] sort of a thinking man’s NDP member says he thinks the latest attacks on the demonstrators mean that Mubarak is done, if not today, by Friday. Just yesterday, he thought the gradual return to stability, and creation of a sort of free protest zone in Tahrir was going to eventually calm things down, and let Mubarak finish out his term. Then he could shepherd in new parliamentary elections, and possibly modify the constitution to allow Omar Suleiman to run outright.

However, the chaos of today is clearly a result of some sort of rift within the regime. The internet was turned on literally just a couple hours before the pro-mubarak thugs attacked the protesters. If this was planned, one would think that they would have waited to turn the internet on after all this was over. My friend thinks that elements in the NDP that normally control these thugs felt things slipping away from them, and saw the only solution as trying to clear Tahrir with their protesters, hoping once things got chaotic the army would intervene to just clear things out. Instead, there is talk of the military intervening against the pro-mubarak forces to protect the protesters, although it is unclear if this has happened yet.

Of course this interpretation is not entirely inconsistent with the one I offer above–but it underlines splits in the regime and suggests that it would have been better not to allow the thugs to do their handiwork. Only time will tell whether it might have been wiser to leave some room for the protesters. The military for the moment is standing by, not intervening.

PS:  For those who prefer the video version, here courtesy of AP and The Lede you can watch a minute or so of what a regime is willing to try to stay in power (and it may well get worse before it gets better):

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The audacity of audacity

It has been a nice day for a walk in Egypt’s streets, where millions today have demonstrated their interest in seeing President Mubarak out of office right away and his successor chosen democratically in free and fair elections.

What is Mubarak’s response?  He says he will not run next September for another term.  This may well look to Egyptians like the result of American efforts, as the New York Times is reporting that President Obama sent Mubarak a message to this effect through former U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner.

Mubarak is conceding far less than it may sound to Westerners.  The Egyptian constitution (article 76) prescribes the process for choosing the President:

The People’s Assembly shall nominate the President of the Republic. The nomination shall be referred to the people for a plebiscite. The nomination to the post of President of the Republic shall be made in the People’s Assembly upon the proposal of at least one-third of its members. The candidate who wins two-thirds of the votes of the Assembly members shall be referred to the people for a plebiscite.

The People’s Assembly is the lower house of a parliament chosen in unfree and unfair elections last fall, in which Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) holds 90% of the seats. So Mubarak is asking Egypt to wait seven months for him to pack his bags, then watch his successor be chosen by his own political party in a packed parliament.  He mumbled something in his speech today about revision of Article 76, but it seemed to refer to the timing of elections rather than the procedures.

I don’t think you could find 1 in 100 of the people who took a walk in Tahrir Square today to say they like Mubarak’s proposition. But Mubarak is not making all the classic mistakes. The day was peaceful. The security forces were restrained. If there was misbehavior, it was not much televised. Subsidized bread is still being delivered, satisfying the lower classes (where there is more support for the regime) while gasoline is scarce, discomforting the middle classes (where there is less support for the regime). Internet is mostly off (though one tweeter suggested Mubarak would be well advised to turn it on so everyone would go home to watch and answer emails), cell phones are more on (not being able to communicate was really freaking people out).

This is championship rope-a-dope, with a touch of chutzpah, if I can be permitted a culturally incorrect euphemism. The audacity of audacity, with a bit of spite thrown in for good measure. Mubarak may well try to keep this up, wearing down his opponents, thinning their ranks and hoping that they will make the mistake of resorting to violence.

The game is not yet over.  The Americans need to make sure they are not perceived as selling out the Egyptian demonstrators, whose chants today have taken on a more nationalist, anti-American and anti-Israeli edge. It will serve the United States no better to be seen as responsible for the failure of the revolution than for its success. Made in Egypt should be stamped on whichever one this incredible week produces.

PS:  President Obama got it right: lots of “musts,” but he leaves the “hows” up to the Egyptians:

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The two new Sudans

The semester is just beginning at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where I am teaching post-conflict reconstruction (aka stabilization and reconstruction, aka state-building, aka peacebuilding, etc.).  My students get extra credit for quick writeups of relevant events around town.

The first, from Monica Sendor, is now posted. The event, hosted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Studies’ (SAIS) African Studies Program, included presentations on Sudan’s recent referendum from Andrew Natsios (distinguished professor of international development at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and former U.S. special envoy to Sudan) and Omar Ismail (adviser to the Enough Project).

Please visit Monica’s excellent writeup!

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Made in Egypt is best

This is about as good as it gets in the “statements from the army” category:

The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and wellbeing. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people. Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.

But beware those like Les Gelb who see the army as a defense against the Muslim Brotherhood.  What about freedom of expression for everybody does Les not believe in?  Having been thoroughly discredited by advocating partition of Iraq, is he determined now to embarrass himself by advocating a military takeover in Egypt?

There is of course a lot to worry about when it comes to the transition to democracy in Egypt.  It doesn’t stop with the Muslim Brotherhood, which may turn out to be one of the more moderate political forces at work.  Every loon West of Islamabad will be heading soon for the pyramids to sell his (yes, most of the loons are male) wares.  Egypt needs a carefully guided transition that respects its own traditions (including the prestige and popularity of the army) and undoes the constitutional straitjacket that Mubarak invented for his own purposes.

Who better to do this than the Egyptians themselves?  Its Nobel Prize winners and youth are converging in Cairo for the denouement, which could be peaceful if the army is determined to live up to its words.

What is needed now is for someone to read Hosni Mubarak his rights and hustle him onto a plane for Saudi Arabia.  That honor may have fallen to former Ambassador Frank Wisner, in Cairo on behalf of the State Department to help chart a way forward.  But it would be much better if no American is seen as ending the regime.  President Obama has been clear enough about what he wants to see happen.  Tomorrow’s demonstration, if peaceful and even half as big as a million, should get the message through to anyone who is listening.

The trouble is President Mubarak is not listening and may try to stick it out with daily meaningless concessions.  The great peril, to both Mubarak and Egypt, is that he will hang on too long, increasing the risk of serious violence and decreasing the likelihood of a democratic outcome.

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Rope-a-dope it is, for this round

This morning President Mubarak is playing rope-a-dope, letting the protesters tire themselves out while he offers a vice president, reform, political dialogue, a new cabinet, food and other subsidies, promises of jobs and 10% discount coupons. The big crackdown may not come as soon as I had thought–he might wait a few days, making sure the army is in all the right places and hoping the crowds thin as people start to worry more about protecting their property in the absence of the police, who are playing hide and seek (or maybe cops become robbers).  He could then use the discovery of weapons (or maybe al Qaeda?) among those who remain as an excuse for reestablishing law and order.

Meanwhile, former IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei has emerged as the leading figure among the demonstrators.  That may be an American illusion caused by his appearance Sunday on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN program calling for Mubarak’s resignation rather than real enthusiasm among the demonstrators, who seem to regard him more as a bridging figure for a transitional arrangement.  He, Ayman Nour and other luminaries of the opposition are said to have formed a 10-person (let’s hope there are some women included) “People’s Popular Parliament” (sounds good!) to manage the crisis, including security and negotiations with the army.  El Baradei is hardly your usual Jacobin, but he has a lot of experience handling delicate situations, joined the demonstrations (better late than never) and could well help to bring about a relatively nonviolent end to the regime.

Washington hasn’t quite pulled hard on the rug beneath Mubarak’s feet, but talking about transition rather than reform and thinking about blocking aid has its implications.

My twitter feed tells me the million Egyptian march is scheduled for Tuesday, so maybe we’ll all have to hold our breath until then.

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