Thursday, May 26, 2011

Saleh Pushing for Civil War

The GCC initiative is dead. I assumed it was dead the first time Saleh failed to sign it in early May. Apparently it had enough life to get rejected at the eleventh hour Wednesday of last week and then again this past Sunday.

The “negotiating a peaceful transition” phase is now passed. For months, Saleh’s plan has been to distract the Yemeni political opposition and the international community with false starts on talks of reform and power transfer. No one can take his flirtations with peace seriously now, and it appears he know this. Following his failure to sign the GCC accord on Sunday, Saleh warned of civil war. Circumstantial evidence indicates he may be trying to fulfill his own prophecy.

An excellent, clear overview of events in Yemen since Sunday can be found here. In short, an armed conflict between the State and the most prominent family in Yemen’s largest tribal confederation, the al-Ahmar family, threatens to quickly escalate the situation in Yemen. The thousands of demonstrators camping out in “Change Square,” unconnected with this outbreak of armed conflict, fear that their efforts towards peaceful revolution will be drowned as factions in the country move toward open conflict.

Who shot first between the State and the al-Ahmar family is unclear, but Saleh has made it hard to resist placing the blame on him. His political endurance rests on the narrative that Yemen is a fractured state prone to armed conflict and that he is the only man capable of holding it together. Months of peaceful protest against his rule have no doubt frustrated him and his narrative. Since the beginning of these protests, tribesmen and generals have withdrawn their support for the government and announced their support for the protest movement. More importantly, they have resisted violent provocations to respond in kind and in so doing confounded Saleh. Tribesmen checked their guns at the door to "Change Square;" defected generals vowed only to protect protesters and have had only limited engagements with government forces.

Now it seems Saleh is set on initiating the civil war he has all along predicted. A representative from the mediation council that sought to smooth tensions between the state and the al-Ahmar family on Tuesday night said that Saleh did not take the discussed cease-fire seriously and declared that complete responsibility for the conflict rests on the president. Other reports indicated that government forces also bombarded the defected general's army division. Saleh no doubt hopes to drag him into the conflict as well.

In a sad attempt at pandering to the United States, Saleh again suggested Yemen would turn into an al-Qaeda refuge if he left. The truth is that it's the instability caused by Saleh's staying that will enable al-Qaeda.

It’s hard to see what Saleh is hoping to gain from this. The deal brokered by the GCC contained immunity for the president, his family, and close aids. He stands to face a much worse fate now. Perhaps it is the arrogance that comes from decades of survival that makes him defiant. All of his predecessors were assassinated or ousted through coups. Saleh has convinced himself that he can "dance on the heads of snakes," and perhaps he views this situation no differently than other challenges his faced. I'm no expert, but I believe he is gravely mistaken.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Outside Sana'a: Part 3 of 4

I opened my eyes and was in a different world. I could feel it. The familiar but estranged heavy warmth of humidity hung in the air. I looked to the right. Was that a blue line on the horizon? Was that the ocean?

The world was flat. After spending the past three and a half months in Yemen’s mountains, and spending the past two days taking in some of the most extreme variations in altitude I’d every thought possible to see all in one view, it was the flatness, the consistency of height that now seemed extreme.

Not long after waking from my nap, we pulled off the road and parked near an old white-washed building, the Shadily Mosque. Goats grazed around an adjacent shrine. Getting in without paying off the idle group of doorkeepers took some negotiation. The mosque, one of the oldest in Yemen, disappointed on the inside. Its interior wall carvings were painted over in pastels. Leaving the mosque we drove on a short distance before arriving in Mokha.

The port at Mokha, or, Mocha, made its fame as the export point for the world’s coffee. Coffee grown in the area was supposed to carry hints of chocolate in its flavor. The name Mocha is still used today. Yemen held a monopoly on coffee, which was transported from its native Ethiopia and thrived in the fertile green hills of Yemen’s southern highlands. That is, the monopoly lasted until the coffee plant was smuggled out to reappear in colonial holdings in Java and the New World.

Mokha never recovered. That much was apparent as we drove into town. There were no ruins of the once prosperous late-medieval port; all I could see were half-used and half-built concrete block buildings. Residents lounged about on unfinished bottom floors chewing late-afternoon qat. You could call them lazy but there didn’t seem to be much else to do anyway. On a stretch of land between the shore and the street scores of brown dogs and cats lazed in the sand, hardly concerning themselves with each other. The sky was beginning to turn colors as the sun set.

We drove through town until we hit the last street before the ocean and turned right to follow the coast. Coolers were strewn on either side of the road, packed at some point with fish. Some were metal, some were disposable. All had been used for years and clearly showed it: spots of rust and faded ads like the tin signs you find in a farm estate auction, Styrofoam turned brown with spots of green.

We continued past the fish market, if that is what it was, and drove through a meaningless checkpoint (the sign said restricted but the guard waved us through; there were no government facilities in sight save the lone guard post) and parked next to a thatched-roof hut built from driftwood.

Piling out we took a pleasant sunset stroll along the Red Sea. I collected shells and tried to avoid the hundreds of washed up crab, some dead some not quite yet. It’s strange how the smell of the sea or the weight of humidity can transport you. I was quite aware that I was watching the sunset on the Red Sea, and only a short distance across lay Eritrea. But the sea air instantly brought me to South Carolina, where I have my first real memories of the ocean. The humidity took me home to St. Louis. I stood marveled that such a distant place could feel so familiar.

We continued along the shore to investigate a row of three-walled pavilions further up the cost. A public beach perhaps? Yes, but we seemed to be interrupting. The open side of each pavilion faced west toward the sea, and inside groups of men and women, in separate pavilions, reclined and stared contentedly out over the water, munching qat.

By this time it was dusk and we needed to head to Khokha, where we would be staying the night. Aiman (the school’s runner and our driver for this trip) had never been in this area before so finding our way would be a trip. We drove back through the main drag of Mokha, past men on motorcycles driving in the opposite direction. Whenever we came to a major intersection, Aiman asked pedestrians to point us in the proper direction. Groups of people were lounging at every corner it seemed. Many times they invited us to join them, not excluding groups of veiled women.

The drive through the Tihama, the low-lying coastal plain running north and south along Yemen’s Red Sea shore, was striking in comparison to the mountain switchbacks we’d spent the previous two days navigating. The highway stretched on straight and flat for miles, the only other people on the road were men on motorcycles with scarves tightly wrapped around their faces to guard against wind and sand. It seemed the motorbike was by far the most popular form of transportation here, used not only for the quick transport of people over flat stretches of open motorway, but for the transport of goods and livestock as well.

We drove on in this fashion, asking directions at every turn, until we came to a roundabout. Here a biker wearing green flannel and a kilt-like mowaaz offered to lead us to our hotel. He knew where it was, he claimed. We politely declined, somewhat suspicious. We continued down the highway before we realized we had gone too far. There again appeared the green flannel man, and this time we followed him. We soon arrived at the hotel, which was a collection of grimy bungalows strung along the shore. They staff was quite unprepared for our arrival, despite having made reservations. First the clerk(s) argued over whether we had made reservations for this night or last night, then they moved on to price. They wanted higher than we were told over the phone. Aiman and some others negotiated, someone else called the student affairs co-coordinator and confirmed that there was another hotel nearby. We decided it was best to take our chances there.

Back on the road we were just as confused about where to ago as before, except that now it was completely dark. There was some nervousness about getting lost, but suddenly the mood was lightened. Our anthropologist got a call on this cell phone from a friend in Sana’a. He became excited. “Really, are you sure?!” We guessed the news before he could relay it: Mubarak was gone, the Egyptian Revolution had succeeded. We cheered inside our Land Cruiser, stunned that the news could be true. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of the end of my trip to Yemen. While we pushed on, rejuvenated by the news, spontaneous crowds took to the streets in Sana’a to celebrate the success in Egypt. The Yemeni reaction to Mubarak’s fall breathed new life into a foundering protest movement, one that before our departure looked like it would soon fade out.

We continued down the highway in the proper direction, but after forty minutes we decided we must have gone too far. We turned around and somehow managed to spot a landmark indicating the turnoff for the hotel. It was a dirt road, and we followed it through the darkness, bumping along as we tried to get our bearings by the light of the bouncing headlamps. There was no clear signage, and I know I at least was apprehensive as to whether this driveway would actually lead to our hotel. Fortunately it did.

The hotel was passable, but definitely creepy. If I had to pick the location for a movie about a series of murders set in a beat-up hotel, I would pick this place hands down. Wallpaper was peeling off the walls in strips. Faded tourist brochures sat in racks on the wall, next to faded photos of Yemen. The hotel looked like it was built to hold a capacity it hadn’t seen in year. There were ten or so people milling about, but they all seemed to be part of the family running the place. We managed to get dinner in their kitchen, but the kitchen and dining area reminded me more of a school cafeteria or church basement in some small town. Shrunken balloons hanging from the ceiling, leftover from a celebration that ended Lord knows when, lent a Miss Havisham quality to the place that it really, really, did not need.

In the hotel’s octagonal lobby we watched hundreds of thousands of Egyptians celebrating in the streets of Cairo, the images carried live by Aljazeera, before finally heading to bed.

Inside the hotel lobby the following morning. Not as creepy in the daylight.

The Tihama, Yemen's western coastal plain.

Driving through Mokha

On the shore of the Red Sea, Mokha in the background

The Shadhili Mosque