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The costs of ignoring Yemen

The long stalemate in Yemen took a bloody turn yesterday which was as horrifying as it was utterly predictable. Regime forces opened fire on the tenacious, peaceful protestors in Change Square in Sana'a, killing dozens and flooding the hospitals with the wounded. The internet has been flooded with horrific videos which could easily have come from Libya or Syria. The violent crisis which many of us have been warning would result from neglecting Yemen and allowing its political stalemate to grind on has now arrived. The Sana'a massacre should be a crystal clear signal that the Yemeni status quo is neither stable nor sustainable, and that the failure to find a political resolution ensures escalating bloodshed and humanitarian crisis. It is time to push for an immediate political transition -- and one which does not include immunity for Saleh's men. 

It has been difficult to get anyone to pay attention to Yemen.  For months, ever since President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been rushed to Saudi Arabia for treatment of wounds from an apparent assassination attempt. Distracted by hot wars in Libya and Syria, the struggling transition in Egypt, and the diplomatic train wreck between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. and most of the region put Yemen on the back burner. Even though thousands of incredibly determined and resilient Yemenis continued to protest regularly, and analysts warned with increasing desperation that missing the opportunity to bring about a transition would be a disastrous mistake, the urgency faded away. Indeed, Saleh's regime counted on that fading external urgency as part of its strategy of delay and distraction, hoping to outlast, confuse, divide, and where possible crush the protest movement. Now, Yemenis are paying for that neglect in blood.    

The U.S., the GCC, the U.N., and Yemen's opposition need to push for Saleh to leave power now and for Yemen to immediately begin a meaningful political transition. Not in a few months, not in a few years, and not empty promises of future change which no Yemeni any longer believes. This does not mean calling for military intervention. After Libya and the debate over Syria, military action has regrettably become many peoples' first rather than last instinct even when it is very clearly neither appropriate nor likely. It means throwing full political support to Yemen's opposition, making clear that Yemeni officials will be held accountable before international tribunals for their role in violence against civilians, and pushing hard to end a stalemate which too many saw as an acceptable state of affairs.

Months of inattention have made this task harder, not easier. Yemen's protest movement had been one of the most impressive and even astonishing of its Arab counterparts, and by March it seemed inevitable that Saleh's regime would soon fall in the face of a peaceful, mass uprising. But it did not fall, even after Saleh's departure, and a grinding stalemate ensued. The U.S. and the international community essentially delegated the Yemen file to Saudi Arabia and the GCC, which quickly proved that it was either not up to the task or not interested in finding a real solution. The Yemeni regime played on that inattention, looking to buy time and muddle through. The protestors instead proved amazingly resilient, turning out tens of thousands of people even as they struggled to find any way to achieve a political breakthrough. Qaddafi's fall from Tripoli had inspired the Yemeni protestors, renewing hope and galvanizing their efforts --- making this week's escalation and brutality all the more significant not only in Yemen but across the region. 

The atrocities should generate renewed urgency, but there should be no illusion that a solution will now be any easier to find. After long, difficult months the opposition is more fragmented. People are really suffering from the economic collapse. The regime's survival after it seemed on the brink of collapse has baffled its adversaries. Battle lines have hardened, and offers which once might have seemed reasonable now seem unacceptable. With the list of dead and wounded Yemeni civilians growing and rage swelling across the country, few are likely to be interested in the GCC's deal granting amnesty to those responsible for a fresh massacre. I agree with them. One of the most important accomplishments of Libya and of the rapidly evolving international norms around the Arab uprisings has been the rejection of impunity for such atrocities, and Saleh's regime should be no exception.  

This week's violence should be a spur to break this stalemate. But I fear that it is more likely that the world will simply continue to ignore what's happening in Yemen. Most of the attention of the Middle East policy community this week will be directed instead towards the drama of the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations. Few in the West see many major interests in Yemen beyond the narrow, exclusive -- and in today's context nearly indefensible -- focus on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The endless reports of horrors from Syria, and before that Libya, have numbed people to what must seem just one more episode in an endless litany of atrocities. 

But all of this would be a mistake. For half a year now there has been a chance for Yemenis themselves to bring about genuine, positive change and break the dominance of a repressive and corrupt regime. The new round of violence makes achieving that change more urgent -- and, if the U.S., the UN, the GCC and others could only be brought to notice, finally possible. Yemen matters. Yemenis matter. Ignoring them has allowed a hurting political stalemate and a worsening humanitarian crisis. A non-policy of inattention to Yemen has only increased the risk of collapse into a real civil war, which would pose infinitely worse policy choices. Don't wait for that. 

Marc Lynch

Don't Let the Israeli Embassy Disaster Kill Egyptian Democracy

Friday's attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo by protestors marching from Tahrir Square and the subsequent harsh security crackdown could become an epic fail for the Egyptian revolution. That's not because Egyptians shouldn't protest against Israel if that's what angers them, and it's not because the incident is likely to escalate to war. It's because the incident could easily become an excuse for the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to postpone elections, expand rather than surrender its Emergency Law powers, and avoid the transfer of power to a legitimate civilian government. What's more, these moves might now win applause rather than condemnation among key constituencies: revolutionaries who were already skeptical of elections, liberals worried that Islamists will win, and Americans and others abroad worried about the implications of Egyptian democracy for Israel. 

This would be a terrible mistake. The absence of any legitimate political institutions seven months after Mubarak's fall and the SCAF's arbitrary and unaccountable rule are what created the political vaccuum which has brought Egypt to this edge. Yesterday's chaos should not be taken as a reason to postpone a democratic transition. It should instead be a powerful reminder of the urgency of sticking to the timeline for elections and getting on with the business of building an Egyptian democracy. Those who care about Egypt completing its revolution should now be doubling down on the urgency of a real democratic transition -- not backing away from it.   

I'm not going to go over what happened Friday night yet again, or repeat what I wrote last week about how Egypt got to this point -- for a review, go read my introduction to the new POMEPS Brief on the State of the Egyptian Revolution (free download).  I'll just say that Friday's protest has hardly resolved the growing strategic and identity problems of a protest movement divided between revolutionaries and liberals and struggling to connect with an impatient and frustrated Egyptian public.  The September 9 Tahrir demonstration had been meant to "correct the path" of the revolution after this summer's struggles.  Even before the Embassy incident, the results had been mixed. It generated very real energy and enthusiasm among the participants, and activists have high hopes that the energy will carry over to a wave of strikes across the country planned for this and coming weeks. Despite the relatively small turnout (maybe 20,000) and the cacophany of different demands muddying the message, people in Tahrir on Friday reported positive energy and more enthusiasm than had been felt in months. 

Activists and observers disagree unusually sharply about the Israeli Embassy storming. The international response has been almost universally negative, with the Western media filled with images of a violent mob and a revolution gone awry. The pessimists about the Arab uprisings are claiming vindication. Many Egyptian liberals as well watched horrified, convinced that the revolutionaries had just given the SCAF all the excuse it needed to crack down even harder. They see Friday's chaos as a dangerous move away from demanding democracy and domestic reform. Many people are darkly speculating that the Israeli Embassy incident must have been a set-up by the SCAF (why was the Embassy so lightly guarded) or by Islamists to discredit the revolution (even if Islamists by all accounts were absent from the scene). 

The most fervent online revolutionaries, by contrast, consider the attack on the Embassy and the flight of the Israeli Embassy staff a great success.  Revolutions require escalation and street conflict, especially when the SCAF has proven (in their eyes) that it will not change without real popular pressure. They seem baffled by the hand-wringing of critics, don't care about international perceptions, and doubt whether the SCAF could get any worse (Sarah Carr gives an eloquent presentation of this perspective here). Protesting against Israel is genuinely popular among Egyptians, some reckon, and allows them a rare opportunity to outflank cautious Islamists on the nationalist card.  

In my view, the greatest tragedy of the Embassy crisis is that the most urgent demands articulated for September 9 have been completely lost. Last week's major demands were urgent and compelling:  ending military trials, judicial and police reform, and setting a timetable for a return to civilian rule.  Nobody is talking about those issues today. All the talk instead is of the storming of the Israeli Embassy and the resulting chaos. The gap between the different strands of the January 25 coalition has never seemed wider. Those who hope for rapid, fundamental political change towards democracy are on the defensive. And the move against the Israeli Embassy feels depressingly familiar rather than revolutionary. How could the very activists who began their campaign by demonstrating in Tahrir in support of the Palestinian Intifada ten years ago forget that Hosni Mubarak happily let protestors demonstrate against Israel as long as they avoided domestic issues?

These are issues for Egyptians to resolve. But here in Washington I can only urge the Obama administration, Congress, and the American public not to allow the incident to be used as an excuse to delay elections or to avoid serious reforms. They should not accept the SCAF's arguments that this weekend shows the need for a strong hand and a delay of democratic reforms. The needs for ending military trials and for judicial and police reform are just as urgent today as they were yesterday. The need for a transition to rule by a fairly elected civilian government has never been more clear. The SCAF's ongoing, arbitrary and unaccountable military rule -- along with its increasingly reckless fomenting of a xenophobic nationalism --  created the conditions for yesterday's clashes. Allowing the SCAF to back away from real institutional reforms and a timeline for elections would kill what hopes remain for Egyptian democracy, empower radicals, discredit and block those who have committed to preparing for elections, and force people back into the streets for lack of other alternatives.  That's would only guarantee that the crisis will get worse. 

DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/Getty Images