Today, tomorrow, or possibly a little later – the Yemeni government has said that the votes might take some time to tabulate, as if we didn’t all already know the result! – for the first time in 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh will not be President of Yemen.
American politicians and diplomats are already crowing about “democracy by the ballot box”, all the while ignoring that there is only a single candidate on the ballot paper and his rise to power is not really in doubt. In fact, given that there is no minimum turnout specified for the results to be valid, it’s a good sight less democratic than some of the ‘presidential referendums’ held by Syria or Kazakhstan, in which there was at least a second choice, even if selecting it meant that you were in mortal peril. Sensible people, of course, have no doubts about the validity of this nationwide verification scheme. But there are remarkably few sensible people in positions of power these days.
On a goodwill visit to Yemen on the eve of Mansour Hadi’s deification, John Brennan, Obama’s counterrorism advisor – the fact that it was him who visited tells you all you need to know about US priorities – announced that Yemenis should be proud of being the only nation to have achieved a peaceful transition. Well, I hardly know where to begin! For a start, one wonders what the 1,700 Yemenis who have been killed over the last year would have said to the idea of the uprising being regarded as ‘peaceful’, and it’s not immediately clear why the Yemenis should be ‘proud’ of a transition agreement which was worked out between 6 foreign countries and an autocrat.
But this spectacularly cretinous comment actually conceals a more sinister narrative. By saying this, Brennan is implicitly declaring the failure of the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia – particularly Egypt and Tunisia, which have also held elections, if of a radically different calibre and with a result that the Americans didn’t like. Given that any sort of solution that was likely to be enacted in the face of the Yemeni problem was going to involve a heavy amount of US backing, this should surprise no-one. Nonetheless, we should be wary of cynical attempts to co-opt what amounts to a virtual coup and turn it into a shining example of democratic practice and popular revolt gone right. This “peaceful transition” has by no means been “achieved”. Saleh is no longer the president, and that is a step in the right direction, but the government bureaux and military institutions of Yemen are still seething with Salehids – his “frens and relayshuns” in such multitude as A. A. Milne’s Rabbit used to have – and although Western leaders might make the (perhaps willful) mistake of supposing that the whole undemocratic edifice will come collapsing down, we need not follow.
It also reinforces the line that just because the governments of Saudi Arabia and a host of other reprehensible Gulf states support something, that counts as popular Arab support (a Libyan trend, and one which I thought had peaked with Syria). In fact, that the King of Saudi Arabia supports the course of action that’s being taken is generally a prime indication that it’s wrong. That the GCC should have got involved at all was madness from the very start. Everything about their involvement had all the hallmarks of badly-disguised urgency to create a precedent lest their own positions eventually be threatened. Under the banner of stepping in to provide stability to a divided nation, the Gulf monarchies fully disenfranchised the opposition movement and sent Saleh, freshly inoculated against any sort of legal reprisals, off to the States for five-star medical treatment. Against, we should not be surprised. Yemen has been exactly what the GCC has always wanted from the only Gulf republic: impoverished, chaotically dangerous, and authoritarian. Once a movement sprung up that aimed to reverse all three of these faults, it was only a matter of time before they got involved. But we – and more importantly, our governments – should not pretend that Saudi self-interest is a substitute for popular Arab approval, any more than we should in Syria. All this in the name of security, stability, and counter-terrorism – from the original manufacturers of 9/11.
In the end, terrorism is what it comes down to, at least for the Americans (and that’s a game that the Saudis are happy to play). This is why John Brennan is so happy to sign off on the transition. Yet we should not be seduced by the fear of Islamism in Yemen. It might be argued that as a staunchly traditional country with a famous al-Qaeda problem and an unfortunate record of having tourists murdered, Yemen is an ideal place for an Islamist takeover. But Islamism has to have a brand, and given that the Sunni/Shi’a split in Yemen is roughly 50/50, Islamists of either persuasion will likely be left howling. The focus on religion is generally a way of avoiding having to think about the other important division in Yemeni society – the recriminations between North and South. This split is by no means orthogonal to the Sunni/Shi’a split (most of the Zaidi Shi’a live in the North, for example), it’s just that talking about terrorism is easier than admitting that South Yemen is basically a colony of the North.
So if (pronounced “when”) the Americans or the GCC make uncomfortable Islamist-related noises about genuine elections in Yemen, assuming they happen at all, consider that trying to thwart a legitimate Islamist government is an excellent way of creating an illegitimate one. Then again, if state leaders had learned when to recognise that their efforts would hideously backfire, most of the past 70 years of Middle Eastern history would not have happened.