Editor’s Note: Daniel R. DePetris is Senior Associate Editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis.
By Daniel R. DePetris - Special to CNN
In a play out of the old American Civil Rights Movement, tens of thousands of Yemeni protesters from the embattled city of Taiz organized and set out en mass to demonstrate the epitome of non-violent civil disobedience. The subject in question was the Gulf Arab initiative, an agreement forged by Yemen’s wealthier neighbors to ease Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office without inciting more turmoil and bloodshed. The only problem, at least from the protesters’ viewpoint, is that the deal allows Saleh to skate on charges of murdering hundreds of fellow Yemenis over a nearly yearlong period.
What was once a campaign against Saleh’s three-decade reign has now morphed into a project with new aims under a new transitional Yemeni Government. The Yemeni political opposition, led by the Joint Meetings Parties, may be content with the agreement’s provisions, but it has become clear ever since Saleh signed that the real protesters on the ground - the people who are actually marching in the streets and risking their lives - are not yet ready to let their old leader off the hook.
Despite their success in forcing Saleh to finally leave, Yemenis of all political, ideological, and religious backgrounds are rightly hesitant to declare victory. Yemen’s Defense Ministry remains in the vestiges of the Saleh family after all, with onetime heir-apparent Ahmed Ali Saleh in full control over Yemen’s elite Republican Guard unit. A Saleh nephew continues to hold onto his command of the Central Security Forces, as well as Yemen’s counterterrorism apparatus—the same unit that has received millions of dollars in funding from the United States. Those forces allegedly shot and killed thirteen protesters who took part in the one-day march from Taiz to Sana’a last week, illustrating once again that while Saleh may no longer be officially in charge, his influence still runs through the blood of the younger generation.
With Saleh now nominally out, the Obama administration has tried to stay on top of events. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald M. Feirestein has been in frequent contact with Yemeni transitional figures, as has President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan. The attention is more than warranted, for the administration placed upon Abdullah Saleh the specially designated status of an important counterterrorism partner (even if he diverted some of that counterterrorism assistance to fight off his domestic rivals). The absence of Saleh means an absence of a valuable partner, a man who at least tolerated US covert operations on Yemeni territory. Little is known about Saleh’s deputy-turned interim president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, except that he is independent enough to be acceptable to all sides in Yemen’s protracted political crisis.
Whether or not Saleh’s past relationship with Washington has anything to do with the Obama administration’s decision to let him into the United States may be jumping to conclusions. The Yemeni President was reportedly debating whether to travel to the United States for quite some time, going so far as to mention it to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. As the story has surfaced and developed, unnamed senior U.S. officials have confirmed this version of events, stressing that the administration is deliberating the option pending a number of conditions - the biggest one being that he does not use U.S. territory to stage a political comeback.
Unfortunately, a political comeback is exactly what Saleh may be hatching. The Gulf Cooperation Council agreement does not permit him to eventually return to Yemeni political life as an opposition candidate. Saleh himself has since indicated in his public statements that he will indeed return to Yemen in some political capacity, “Because I won’t leave by people and comrades.”
Saleh will most likely behave himself if he is fortunate enough to hit U.S. soil, which would help alleviate many of the public relations concerns that the Obama administration has been thinking about during these last few days.
But in the long run, it may not matter if Saleh behaves himself while in the United States. Based on his survival skills in politics, Saleh will most certainly weigh a future return to politics. And when he does, there is the very real possibility of millions of Yemenis associating the United States with that return - even if the link is not very strong. Washington learned the hard way with Shah Reza Pahlavi of how politically dicey an unpopular visa entry can be. While Saleh’s case is different from that of the Shah, the final effect could very well be similar. Instead of an America seen as a positive force for the Yemeni people’s democratic rights and aspirations, the nation runs the risk of being perceived as a willing host to a dictator with blood on his hands.
If Saleh is granted a visa, he will only be in the United States temporarily, until his treatment is over. Yet even a temporary stay could hurt America’s image in Yemen at a time when the Obama administration should be working with Yemen’s future leaders - the young men and women who braved bullets, arrests and torture to make their country a far better place to live.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Daniel DePetris.