While Yemen draws headlines and global policy attention as another critical Arab ally to undergo popular unrest, the Obama administration remains focused on one issue: terrorism.
Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, American security forces have intensified their attention on hunting Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni cleric and member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Although the American media often presents al-Awlaki as the next bin Laden, his importance, especially in Yemen, is vastly blown out of proportion. Even his tribe in the south does not support him. A far more important task for the American public and policymakers would be to understand the mentality of Yemenis who would potentially become his followers and willingly give their lives for his cause.
Every week protesters are killed simply because they seek a dignified life with more freedoms and better access to basic needs. The Yemeni people are protesting against the corrupt, repressive and divisive politics of Yemen’s president of 32 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
While Yemenis continue to demand that he relinquish power, he toys with the country, constantly changing his mind on how to end the social and political tension. Even after the international community came together to offer him a dignified way out, he rejected it, playing politics like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi rather than Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
President Saleh is not the answer to U.S. concerns over terrorism in Yemen.
Yemen’s revolution began with inspiration from Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vender who burned himself alive after losing all hope for a better life. There are millions of Mohammed Bouazizis across the Arab world, especially in Yemen, where more than 40 percent of the population lives below the food poverty line on less than $2 a day.
It is important that the U.S. pay attention to these dissatisfied Yemenis and support their courageous efforts to improve their lives through civil and democratic means. Otherwise, some might grow frustrated and use violence to achieve change.
This is why revolution in Yemen presents an opportunity for both Yemen and the world. For the first time in Yemen’s history, politics are related to the people’s lives. Yemenis can see a direct connection between the political powers running the country and their personal welfare. During this transitional phase, Yemenis would do anything to improve their lives. Fear is gone; hope has arrived.
But politics are politics, and there is a need for more than emotion or even genuine mobilization of the public. Yemen needs strategies, political maneuvering and savvy that will translate the revolution into a new system that is more responsive to the people’s needs. This is the role of the political parties.
Yet the strongest political party in the revolutionary scene remains Islah, a conservative Islamic party. Although it has toned down its ideological rhetoric and dogma, adopting a more political stance, one cannot ignore Islah’s religious mandate.
For this reason, it is dangerous to allow the passionate revolutionary youth to be overwhelmed by the strategizing of this political party, especially since Islah continues to recognize Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” as head of its consultative council. If the political future of Yemen is dominated by Islah, no doubt, the U.S. will find a way — which it is already doing — to deal with this conservative party. And Islah, having already learned the rules of international politics, will accept this reality.
Islah, however, is not the only option for the U.S. or Yemen.
The best way to create political and ideological balance in Yemen — and guarantee that any new government is not sympathetic to al Qaeda — is to strengthen civil society and empower smaller, rising political entities that embrace moderate agendas, including women’s movements. This must be done quickly in order to capture the momentum of this remarkable popular revolution and all the goodwill and positive energy that comes with change.
The longer the U.S. allies itself with President Saleh, the more likely Yemen will experience chaos and civil war and risk becoming a sanctuary for terrorist activity. Today is the best opportunity to achieve democratic change and guarantee a secure and stable Yemen.
Al-Sakkaf is the editor-in-chief of The Yemen Times, since March 2005. She is the winner of the first Gebran Tueni Award and one of the leading media and development activists in Yemen.