The Silent Hand of Saleh

Was the security lapse at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa a move by Yemen's former president to show America who still calls the shots?

SANAA, Yemen — As black smoke billowed into the sky above the U.S. embassy in Sanaa on Thursday, Sept. 13, demonstrators hacked at the thick glass windows of the security office entrance with pick axes. To the cry of "Death to America!" the angry mob burned an American flag and set SUVs alight inside the heavily guarded compound.

But something was not quite right. How had a few hundred unarmed protesters managed to breach the security of one of the most fortified embassies in the world?

The beginning of the answer to that question lay at the outer perimeters of the security cordon and at roadblocks on the streets approaching the U.S. embassy.

As protesters stood chanting on low concrete blocks designed to stop vehicles approaching the compound, Yemen's Central Security Forces, in their camouflage uniforms, blue berets, and distinctive bright blue-and-orange arm patches looked on. Fifty-caliber machine gun "dushkas" mounted on the back of pick-up trucks, stationed under sun-protecting shelters, menacingly faced the crowd.

Then, without so much as a raised hand from the soldiers, protesters walked straight though the gaps between the yellow and black striped blocks. Like a gentleman holding a door open for a lady, the soldiers, with their AK-47s slung over their shoulders, stepped back, letting the chanting mob through. And as the angry mob marched further towards the embassy building itself the soldiers walked with them, some even smiling.

Yemen's Central Security Forces, created by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, remain under the command of his nephew Brig. Gen. Yahya Saleh, who enjoyed a warm relationship with the U.S. embassy here in Sanaa for years. The U.S.-trained and funded counterterrorism troops also fell under his command. The relationship had been a necessary close one in America's strategy to combat the country's notorious al Qaeda network.

On the day this February when his uncle handed over power to the country's new president, Abdu Rabu Mansu Hadi, at the presidential palace, Yahya and U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein greeted each other like old friends. With laughter and a firm, lingering handshake, they clasped each other's elbows in the midst of a packed room of dignitaries and a throng of domestic and international media.

Since February, however, things have slowly begun to change in Yemen's security forces. The powerful extended-family network of commanders -- created by Yemen's former ruler -- has been eroded. Hadi's presidential decrees, released over recent weeks and months, have shifted military leaders to lesser positions and altered the long-standing alignment of control in the country's divided armed forces. During a year of political unrest, Yemen's army split following the massacre of 53 demonstrators in Sanaa's Change Square on March 18, 2011. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, one of the country's most powerful commanders, defected, throwing the weight of his First Armored Division behind the anti-Saleh protest movement.

After an attempt on Saleh's life in June 2011 saw the injured president whisked away to neighboring Saudi Arabia for much needed medical care, the two sides of the army eventually came to blows. In September, when the violence peaked, civil war seemed almost inevitable. But following Saleh's surprise return to Sanaa, resulting in further bouts of fighting, he finally agreed to step down in November 2011, handing power to his long-standing vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansu Hadi. Dramatic changes in the structure of Yemen's military appeared essential to the process of political transition and the survival of his successor.

But it hasn't been an easy transition: In April 2012, when Saleh's half-brother and commander of the air force, Gen. Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, refused to step down, pick-up trucks full of gunmen, protesting his sacking, forced the closure of the Sanaa airport, which also acts as Yemen's primary air force base.

So far, Yahya has largely managed to avoid much of the impact of the recent changes: He has yet to have his power undermined by being either being sacked from his position or moved to a lesser role, unlike his cousin, Tareq Saleh, who was previously head of the Presidential Guard and decided to retire rather than accept a new post under Hadi's reforms. But the future prospects of Yahya maintaining his command look bleak. And Yemen's ruling clans don't go down without a fight; many here expected, and still anticipate, a backlash from the Salehs. And with the former president still living in central Sanaa, the presence and influence of his 33-year-long reign remains.

Collusion between security forces and the Saleh family over Thursday's events at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa would not be the first of its type. The supposedly spontaneous protests bore a striking resemblance to an embassy siege in Sanaa last year that many believe was orchestrated to prove a point.

Amid growing protests in Sanaa, on May 22, 2011 -- Yemen's day of celebration for unification with the south -- the international community was expecting Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council deal that would see him hand over power. As Sanaa's foreign diplomats eagerly gathered in the United Arab Emirates embassy building, an angry mob arrived outside. In an apparent protest at the prospect of an end to Saleh's presidency, men wielding AK-47s and traditional jambiya daggers trapped the ambassadors inside. Only a blatant disregard for external security, with soldiers choosing to look the other way, would have made such an event possible.

The siege ended only when Saleh valiantly sent his helicopters in to pluck the foreign dignitaries from the roof of the building in a serial rescue mission. The whole scenario felt like a scripted movie scene that even Hollywood would have scoffed at being just too far-fetched. But this was a classic Saleh plot. It would be another six months, under increasing pressure and after all-out war had broken out in the capital, before he eventually relinquished and signed the agreement to transfer power.

Hadi's relationship with the United States has already proved to be stronger than his predecessor's in the eyes of Washington. U.S. counterterrorism chief John Brennan boasted about the better-than-ever relationship in a speech in August saying, "since President Hadi has assumed the presidency, there is a new determination, a new consistency in terms of what the Yemeni government is doing on counterterrorism." Any undermining of that relationship, say a well-timed attack on the U.S. Embassy, could play into the hands of the Salehs, particularly Yahya, whose position in Yemen's military is under threat with Hadi's ongoing restructuring plans.

Following Thursday's scenes in the northeast of the capital, even President Hadi himself eluded to the ease with which demonstrators were able to breach security. In a statement released in apology to the United States and Barack Obama, he added that the storming of the U.S. embassy compound  "highlighted that the divisions among Yemen's security and military forces...have contributed to the amplification of the incident."

Conspiracy theories abound in Yemen, cemented by a three-decade-long opaque system of governance and a heavily partisan and polarized press. And the rumors are flying that a little well-timed chaos seems a perfect cover for the continued meddling of the Salehs in Yemen's fragile period of political transition. Perfect, so long as it doesn't get way out of hand.



Playing Defense

Barely 100 days into his presidency, Francois Hollande is already trying to persuade France that his administration isn't sinking. 

PARIS — La rentrée -- the time of the year that France's workers, students, and politicians come back from their summer holidays -- is a time to take stock, and François Hollande returned from his first presidential vacation at a former fort on the French Riviera in a political free fall.

Cascading approval ratings and a relentless media barrage suggesting that he is an absentee captain of an aimless ship in storm led to a strange spectacle: a president in power for barely 100 days went on France's most popular television show, live and in prime-time, and told his interviewer that, "The government hasn't wasted any time and it has acted rapidly." Historically, freshly elected French presidents -- who, until 2002, enjoyed leisurely seven-year terms -- have rarely felt the need to justify the pace of their activity, especially in their first months in power.

While it is clear that France's presidential metabolism has sped up in the 21st century, particularly during the hyperkinetic just-ended term of Nicolas Sarkozy, the main reason that Hollande needs to make such assurances now is a testament to the scale of the buzzkill France endured in August. After 15 consecutive months of rising unemployment, the nation crossed a grim psychological barrier: surpassing 3 million people on the dole. That's a rate of 10.2 percent unemployment. During the interview, Hollande announced that the government was lowering its anemic economic growth forecast for 2013 from 1.2 percent down to .8 percent. (Soon after, a separate survey of 18 economists resulted in an even lower forecast of just .3 percent for 2013.) Worse, the government forecast for growth this year is zero.

Meanwhile, the existential eurocrisis continues, with no decisive endpoint in sight. And it emerged in the French press on Sept. 8 that Bernard Arnault, who Forbes ranks as the 4th richest man on Earth with a net worth of around $41 billion, has applied for citizenship in Belgium. Arnault insists that France will remain his tax residence, but many people doubt this, given that Belgium is particularly welcoming to the wealthy, and that Hollande has promised to institute a "super-tax" on France's highest revenue earners. In the United States, some people who are rich (or who think they might one day get rich) might have heart attacks over Hollande's new super-tax that will gobble up 75 percent of an individual's annual income that is over 1 million euros ($1.28 million). And most of the first million will be taxed at a 45 percent rate.

If, after obtaining his Belgian citizenship, Arnault has a change of heart about where he wants to pay his taxes, the loss of revenue for the French state could be enormous. His taxes are private, as are his deductions, but he reportedly earns an eight-figure salary as the head of the luxury group LVMH, in addition to the return on his many investments. The question in places like London, Luxembourg, and Geneva is now: how many other rich tax refugees should they expect?

As political honeymoons go, Hollande's has been stunningly short. In May, 62 percent of the French showered approval on him. Barely three months later, that number dropped to 48 percent. And that has been in the absence of any sort of scandal. In the last month alone, he saw a drop of 9 percent in the percentage of French people who believe that he is capable of keeping his (still-popular) campaign pledges, from 57 percent down to 48 percent. Anxiety, meanwhile, has surged. In May, 34 percent of the French described themselves as "rather unsatisfied" (or worse) with Hollande. By early September, the disgruntled rate leapt to 59 percent.

In an effort to restore the faith that voters placed in him in the spring, Hollande insisted in the television interview that he has a clear vision for his presidential term, but that he will need time, patience, and called for the nation to come together in the face of an array of epic challenges. "I know where I am going. I say to the French: I am taking responsibility," he said.

"The current economic slowdown makes it even more difficult to achieve this objective," Hollande continued, "but it makes success even more crucial."

Specifically, he insisted that within a year France will "invert the curve" of rising unemployment; that meaningful economic growth will return in 2014; and that by 2017 France will -- and this would be a small miracle -- eliminate the last traces of its intractable annual budget deficit. The implicit message in these promises is that France faces a very challenging half-decade.

In the same interview, Hollande also offered a grim state-of-the-republic assessment in which he noted "high unemployment, decreased competitiveness, considerable deficits [and] an historic indebtedness." The message to his base: circumstances prevent him from acting like some sort of Socialist Santa Claus for France's poor and middle classes.

So what will he do? His vision to restore France involves a three-part plan to restore its finances. The government plans to increase taxes on the nation's wealthiest citizens by $12.8 billion, and on businesses by an additional $12.8 billion. On the other side of the ledger, Hollande pledged to reduce government spending by yet another $12.8 billion. Put simply, his deficit-reduction solution is two-parts tax increases on people with the money to pay them, and one-part spending cuts on those who receive benefits.

The reality, as any economist or anyone familiar with French politics knows, is that these suspiciously round figures -- 10 billion euros in all three cases -- will turn out to be rough guidelines rather than lines in the sand. It is the job of the government of his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, to translate Hollande's vision into actual policy.

This will require a great deal of skill in dealing with France's business leaders, workers, and the ruling party's own political base; Hollande, like leaders around Europe and the United States, is struggling with complex questions. How to regulate the economy without handicapping it? How to encourage hiring and reduce the cost of French labor without eliminating crucial benefits and downgrading the value of jobs? How to increase purchasing power without increasing the debt and empowering fickle lenders to decide his nation's fate? How much to tax the rich without spurring them to flee? Finding balance is unlikely to be easy.

On the tax-the-rich front, it remains to be seen whether or not Hollande's plan will spur Jaguar and BMW traffic jams of fleeing millionaires at the borders with Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, or if it will hurt French industry as CEOs move their companies abroad to preserve their own incomes. But given that Hollande's super-tax enjoyed the support of about seven in 10 voters, according to polls during the campaign, it is hardly a surprise that he is pushing forward. To reassure France's 1 percent, Hollande clarified that his millionaire's tax will just be a two-year measure. And, he insisted, it will only apply to between 2,000 and 3,000 individuals. (Other increases, such as an increased beer levy will affect a broader swath of the population.)

Hollande has also promised to facilitate the hiring of 100,000 young people in poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas in the next year. While the final details still need to be ironed out, it appears that the government will create a new contractual framework that allows for 1- to 3-year work contracts for people between 16 and 25, with the state subsidizing a substantial portion of those salaries. Other efforts to broaden access to job training and lower labor costs to make French workers more competitive internationally, are also being finalized.

But the Socialist president is banking, above all, on re-solidifying France's financial status. This means keeping promises to the European Union to lower the nation's public deficit to 3 percent or less of GDP by the end of next year (which should go over well in Germany.) After which he will further bolster France's status with its lenders by eliminating that deficit altogether by the end of his term. "It will be," Hollande said on television, "the most significant budgetary effort in 30 years" in France.

(He didn't mention that the deficit is expected to drop to 4.5 percent at the end of this year, thanks to reductions made by Sarkozy.)

Speaking slowly and firmly, Hollande told voters that he was never going to be able to do in four months what his predecessors, Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, failed to do in the last decade. The speech may well stem Hollande's immediate decline, even if it remains to be seen whether the government can convincingly implement the president's vision. There are also the nagging questions of whether the change of leadership in Paris will really be able to untie France's Gordian knot, as Hollande suggests -- and whether the increasingly grumpy French will give him the time he needs to try.

One thing is immediately clear, though. Hollande needs to transform into action the campaign slogan that helped to get him elected:  "Change, it starts now."

After a rocky holiday season, it better.

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