The Case of Yemen

23 03 2011

Yemen

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s grip on power grew even more tenuous this week, as top generals, politicians and tribal leaders defected to the opposition. The news of the defections was met by the protestors with jubilation. At this rate, the question of Saleh losing power has shifted from “if” to “when”.  However, this Machiavellian politician has managed to stay in office for three decades and his survival skills should not be underestimated.

Right now, Yemen appears to be following the lead of the Tunisia and Egypt; other countries that managed to overthrow despots who had ruled for decades.  But even if Yemen manages to shake off Saleh and his regime, the country still faces monumental challenges in the days ahead. These issues need to be addressed immediately and a prolonged conflict could spell doom for this Arab nation.

Before the Arab revolution, Yemen was dealing with rebels in the north and separatists in the south. The country will be out of oil and water in ten years. There is a strong al-Qaeda presence. Now we can add widespread political unrest to the list. Complicating matters is the fact that Yemen shares a border with Saudi Arabia. For our purposes, these are the relevant facts.

Timeline

Ali Abdullah Saleh was selected by parliament to be president of North Yemen in 1978. North and South Yemen were united in 1990. In January 2011, protests erupted in the capital, Sana’a. The protests continued throughout February, with demonstrators demanding Saleh step down. On March 18, up to 50 protestors were gunned down in the capital by men believed to be regime loyalists. The killing of the protestors seemed to mark a turning point, as several major figures (tribal leaders, generals, high-level politicians and diplomats) began siding with the opposition.

The biggest hit to the regime came with the defection of Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar. It is now believed that at least half the army is with the opposition. There have been reports of army soldiers clashing with loyalist Republican Guards, which are led by Saleh’s son Ahmed.  General Ahmar has sent forces to protect the protestors from the state, similar to the role the military played in Egypt.

Tribes

Like Libya, Yemen has a strong tribal presence. Some major tribal leaders have begun defecting to the opposition, but it is unclear how they would fair in a democracy. The tribes wield a tremendous amount of power, which is sure to be diluted in the installation of a true representative government in Yemen.  Saleh may not be much of a leader, but he might be the only force capable of holding the country together. Yemen could fragment along tribal lines if and when Saleh steps down or is removed.

Saleh

Saleh’s deft political maneuvering is what has kept him in power for over thirty years. Many factions have been upset with him during that period, just not all at the same time.  Saleh was a master of juggling alliances to keep enemies at bay to remain in office. When threatened by one group gaining too much power, he would prop up another group to balance things out, and the next month he would do the opposite. Saleh made sure that no faction grew too strong or too weak, and somehow he always managed to come out on top.

Externally, he was almost as skillful. Yemen borders Saudi Arabia, and Saleh was able to play on Saudi paranoia of Iran to guarantee support from the Kingdom. Saleh’s diplomatic overtures to Iran would be countered by Saudi Arabia, who would use its influence with the Yemeni tribes to help the Saleh avoid trouble and remain in power. He used the same strategy with the United States, always playing on fears of Al-Qaeda to extract aid and support from Washington.

Challenges

Yemen is in rough shape. It is already the poorest country in the Middle East, with unemployment around 35%. Three quarters of government revenue comes from oil, which is expected to run out within the decade.

During that same time, Yemen is also predicted to be the first country to run out of water. There are two main reasons for this: drought and qat. Nothing can be done about the drought, but problems from qat are manmade.

Qat is a mildly-narcotic plant whose leaves are chewed for the desired stimulant effect. It’s use in Yemen is rampant, especially in men. The usefulness of the plant is debatable (life in Yemen is hard and it’s natural for people to look for an escape), but its effects on the environment are undeniable. The plant sucks up an atrocious amount of water yet bares no fruit, only the leaves.  But try telling that to the people who grow it, who have no other sources for earning an income for their families.

Qat farming is one of the only viable industries in Yemen and the use of water in its cultivation takes an enormous toll on the nation’s aquifer. Hundreds of illegal wells have been dug and used up dry. Competition for water sources is fierce and is often the cause of violence.  This will continue to be a growing problem for Yemen, especially with a guns per capita ratio second only to the United States.

To make matters worse, the state is using oil to fuel water pumps and desalinization plants. Running out of oil or water would be a disaster for any country. Running out of both at the same time could be fatal. Yemen faces the possibility of running out of water, its largest natural resource and supplier of government revenues (oil), and its only major crop and employer (the qat industry) all at the same time.

Conclusion

Whatever results come from the protests, Yemen faces a historic catastrophe in the not-too-distant future. Any government that comes out of the turmoil will have to address these problems immediately, and should seek support from the international community to do so.

 

 

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The case of Libya

25 02 2011

by Patrick Vibert

“Those people who took your sons away from you and gave them drugs and said let them die are launching a campaign over cellphones against your sons, telling them not to obey their fathers and mothers, and they are destroying their country”

-Colonel Muammar Qaddafi

As the Arab Revolt continues to engulf North Africa and the Middle East, Libya appears to be the next country on the brink of regime change. The oil rich eastern part of the country, including the city of Benghazi, has already fallen, and towns in the west are following suit. Qaddafi is currently holed up in Tripoli (the capital) with a few thousand mercenaries and loyalists, and everything he has said or done so far indicates that he is not going down without a fight.

Qaddafi’s handling of Libya’s unrest thus far indicates he is a man whose soul is every bit as ugly as his physical appearance. He sent out his thugs to stamp out the fire of the protesters using whatever means necessary, including going door-to-door killing dissidents, and ordered the Air Force to bomb protesters. At least two pilots refused, choosing instead to eject and crash their jets into the desert.

The rebels are closing in on Tripoli and the battle for Libya seems to be reaching the decisive point. Qaddafi is reportedly gathering his remaining loyal forces including something the press is ominously referring to as the “irregular army”. Whatever happens, there is no going back for Qaddafi and the citizens of Libya.

The case of Libya resembles that of Tunisia and Egypt, but several factors set it apart. Libya is a major oil exporter. The army is not respected by the people. Tribalism remains a powerful aspect of Libyan society. Qaddafi is not a rational actor. Libya has no civil society. The transition to democracy (if that is where Libya is heading) is unlikely to be peaceful and civil war remains a strong possibility. For our purposes, these are the key facts.

History

Muammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969. He was 27 years old. Qaddafi made it his goal to be the thorn in the side of America, becoming one of the world’s worst state sponsors of terrorism in the process. Libya began investing heavily in chemical weapons manufacturing.

After the US removal of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 however, the despot realized that there was little to be gained by being hostile to the world’s remaining superpower. Qaddafi agreed to halt WMD development and essentially “came in from the cold”, opening up Libya to foreign direct investment. Since then, Libyans have seen capital flooding into their sparsely populated nation, particularly from Europe.

Despite the increased presence of foreign dollars, Qaddafi maintained an iron grip on his citizens, ruthlessly punishing dissent. Some societies will tolerate totalitarianism if enough is gained in return in the form of stability and quality of life (see Saudi Arabia, whose GDP per capita is higher than Poland and Portugal). Unfortunately for Qaddafi, he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

Petroleum

One could make the argument that Libya’s unrest is based on natural resources. Libya is in the top 20 exporters of oil and natural gas, and it has relatively small population of about 6 million people. The exact same thing could be said about Norway, which also is a lead exporter of oil & natural gas with relatively small population. Yet the difference in the quality of life between Norway and Libya is almost immeasurable*.

*While traveling in Jordan some years ago, I met two Americans who were working as civil engineers in Libya. They told me that they got a four weeks paid leave every third month (basically a month off every season) as well as a plane ticket to anywhere in the world. Astounded, I thought about this for a minute before responding, “Wow, Libya must be real shitty”. They each concurred with this assessment.

However, I have also heard that Libya has some of the best historical ruins (both Roman and Islamic) in the entire world, as well as breathtaking natural beauty. As a result of these two conflicting accounts, I am eager to find out for myself. Hopefully a post-Qaddafi Libya will be more conducive to tourism.

This must be frustrating for the people of Libya, who have watched the Qaddafi regime squander the country’s natural resources and make little improvement to the nation’s infrastructure over the last 40 years. Libya should be doing better. At the same time, they have watched other resource-rich countries like UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain provide a much higher quality of life for their citizens. Maybe the people of Libya realized that the world was quickly passing them by and placed the blame on their longtime ruler.

Civil Society

Throughout his tenure, Colonel Qaddafi made it a point to eliminate any semblance of civil society. From the LA Times:

Libyans stand almost alone among other Arabs for the extreme isolation they experienced not only under Qaddafi’s iron-fisted rule but over a decade of international sanctions for the country’s role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Until a few years ago, Internet communications were virtually nonexistent and the only local news source was state media. Satellite television, especially Al Jazeera, had opened Libyan eyes to developments in the world and region, but reports about Libya by international or independent journalists had been a rarity.

Libyans thus had little opportunity to assemble components of civil society. Political associations, human rights organizations, independent professional associations or trade unions were all strictly proscribed, and organized opposition to the “ideology of the 1969 revolution” was punishable by death. On my first visit to Libya in 2005, the specially selected “civil society representatives” permitted to talk with us, and even government officials we met, displayed anxiety about expressing any opinions outside their sanctioned talking points. They literally recited chapter and verse of the Green Book, Qaddafi’s small manuscript on governance. The performance was unmatched by anything I had seen in Syria and Iraq.

A strong civil society does not necessarily lead to a Jeffersonian Democracy (see Iran) but it can help, especially when a country attempts to find its way forward after 40 years under dictatorship.

Tribalism

Tribalism still plays a strong role in Libya. The only Libyan I have ever met (perhaps a testament to the country’s closed-offness) was in grad school. He told me that the state provided very little to people outside the major cities. As a result, a large portion of the population (over half, according to my friend) relied on tribal affiliations for social services.

If Libyans are depending on their individual tribes more than they are on the government, it does not bode well for the country going forward in terms of national unity. In a post-Qaddafi world, tribal differences could contribute to chaos in a fractured society as the various tribes vie for control. Here is a good summary of the tribal situation in Libya.

The Military

Even with officers defecting and pilots crashing their planes in refusal to bomb civilians, the military situation in Libya is vastly different from that of Egypt. In Egypt, the military was a respected part of society; it was responsible for protecting the country’s borders, not squashing civil disobedience. The Egyptian military’s strength was exhibited in the way that it handled the unrest, taking sides with the protesters against the police while stabilizing the country.

In Libya, the military is not as strong or trusted. A post-Qaddafi Libya could see various military factions competing for power, possibly along tribal lines. Libya’s tribal and military characteristics could contribute to chaos if the Qaddafi regime indeed falls, making the prospect of civil war far more likely than in Egypt or Tunisia.

America

Libya under Qaddafi has had an interesting relationship with the United States. For instance, in 1986 Qaddafi arranged the bombing of a Berlin disco, resulting in the death of two US servicemen. To teach him a lesson, Reagan ordered the bombing of targets in Libya, which resulted in the death of Qaddafi’s adopted daughter. In retaliation, Libyan agents arranged the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. This explains Libya’s frosty relations with America, 1969 to 2011.

Conclusion

The combination of Libya’s small population and vast supplies of oil and natural gas (as well as its geographic location) should have led to a far wealthier and educated Libyan society. It hasn’t, and the people are fed up. Libya’s manifestation of the Arab Revolt will not go as smoothly as it did in Egypt or Tunisia. A weak and untrusted military combined with the complex tribal affiliations of Libyan society should contribute to post-Qaddafi chaos. As the situation in Libya grows more unstable, so does its leader, who could turn to his chemical weapons arsenal as he becomes more desperate in his bid to retain power.






The case of Bahrain

18 02 2011

by Patrick Vibert

As protests erupt across North Africa and the Middle East, the tiny island nation of Bahrain is seeing its share of unrest. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital Manama to protest against a regime that is viewed by many as oppressive and discriminatory. Bahrain seems to be following the examples set by Egypt and Tunisia, who have each toppled longtime rulers.

As an Arab country seeking a democracy, Bahrain appears to have much in common with other nations in the region that are facing unrest. But its sectarian makeup and geographic position make it a special case, especially for the United States.

Bahrain is an island that sits off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.  It was a part of the Persian Empire until it achieved independence in 1783. Today, it is the home of America’s Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for patrolling the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. The country’s Sunni majority rules over a Shiite minority. For our purposes, these are the key facts.

BahrainBahrain

Shia outnumber Sunnis in Bahrain 2 to 1. However, the country is ruled by Sunnis who occupy the upper echelon positions in military and government.  Sunnis are aware that toppling the regime means toppling their cushy position in Bahraini society and as a result, the protests have taken on a sectarian dimension.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, it is unlikely that the military will side with the protesters. In the past 24 hours, we have seen an up-tick in violence, with soldiers opening fire on demonstrators. The state-sponsored use of violence will likely only add fuel to the fire of the rebels, but don’t look for the regime to go down without a fight. As said, Egypt and Tunisia had the help of the military, and it is unlikely that any of the revolutionary movements taking place in the region today would get far without it. Right now, the protesters in Bahrain don’t have it and aren’t likely to get it.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis are concerned with growing Shiite (and therefore Iranian) influence. As mentioned, Bahrain is two-thirds Shiite and Iran is almost entirely Shiite. Saudi Arabia has its own population of Shiites, though not as many as Bahrain and Iran. The problem is that Saudi Arabia’s Shia population lives in the oil-rich eastern provinces, which happen to border Bahrain. If the regime in Manama falls giving way to a Shia dominated government, Iran is clearly a beneficiary, as the Islamic Republic would then have an ally right off the coast of its biggest rival in the region.

Saudi Arabia was already concerned with creeping Iranian influence before this mess, going as far as taking sides with Israel against the Persians and supporting the Yemeni government in their war against Shia Houthi rebels near their common border.  The current unrest has to be deeply troubling for The Kingdom, and it is rumored that Riyadh has dispatched security/intelligence advisors to Bahrain to aid in the crackdown and to report back events on the ground.

United States

The United States is in a tricky position. The Obama administration wants to be “on the right side of history”, but Washington has proved over the last few weeks that it has a hard time deciding what exactly that is. When it comes to old allies, the United States prefers the status quo.

This was true in Egypt, but when it became clear that the Mubarak regime was falling America had to readjust to the reality on the ground and support the protesters in their pursuit of democracy. Washington will take the same approach to Bahrain, as the American public has a soft spot in their hearts for the image of besieged patriots trying to overthrow a king.  But the strategic implications of the Shiite majority taking power in Bahrain is likely causing sleepless nights for the officials who are paid to worry about such things.

As mentioned, America’s Fifth Fleet is parked in Bahrain. The Fleet represents US power projection in the region and sends the message to state actors and non-state actors alike that American bombers, fighters, warships, and Marines are never that far away. If a Shiite regime that is allied with Iran takes power in Bahrain, the Fifth Fleet will quickly find itself in need of relocation, with few options*.

*Slim pickens here. Saudi Arabia is out, because stashing US warships in the Custodian of the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina is controversial to say the least. Iran is out for obvious reasons, though it would be funny to ask. Oman or Qatar could do it, but they wouldn’t be happy about it. Kuwait is the most likely choice, as “they owe us one” for repelling Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I.

Along with Bahrain and the Saudis, the United States is also concerned with creeping Iranian influence (see Lebanon and Iraq). The US economy depends on the free flow of oil, much of it originating in the Persian Gulf, and maintaining the flow of oil is a key national security goal of the United States.  America is playing a zero sum game with Iran, where any gain by Tehran is seen as a loss for Washington. And a Shiite revolution in Bahrain would be seen as a huge win for Iran.

 





Iran: Movement or Revolution?

11 01 2010

by Patrick Vibert

On the Foreign Policy website, author Hooman  Majd recently characterized the events taking place in Iran as a civil rights movement (as opposed to a revolution) and he predicted that, whatever you call it, the situation is highly unlikely lead to regime change. This is sure to disappoint those in the West that have proclaimed the end of the Ayatollah and his unfriendly regime.

To recap, protests erupted in Tehran following a questionable election results of June 2009. The “reform” candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi, was trounced by the incumbernt Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. If a free and fair election had taken place, this may have very well been the outcome, but there were some  questionable results. Mousavi was badly beaten in Tehran, where he enjoyed broad support, and in his own home district, which is extremely dubious. Many analysts came to the conclusion that while the regime in Tehran may have fudged the results, Ahmedinejad would have would handily anyway.

Still, this reasoning did not sit well with the voters and soon protests erupted in urban areas, where Mousavi support was strongest. What started out as a show of disapproval after a controversial election result turned into a catharsis of wide spread civil disobedience stemming from years of brutal government oppression. The government was caught off guard at the display, and once people started to realize what they could get away with, the movement quickly started to gain momentum.

The world watched as the people of Tehran took to the streets to protest the regime. Aided by Facebook updates, Youtube clips and Twitter feeds, people could follow along with the action and voice their support for the people who were truly risking their lives by speaking out against the government. Eventually the scale of the protest started to ebb, but the Iranian’s bitter dissatisfaction with the government continued to smolder.

The controversy was a gift to the West as it represented and opportunity to initiate a change in Iran. Decades of sanctions and isolation (led by the United States) have only strengthened the resolve of the regime, and to date the strategy has bore little fruit. Now there was real pressure being put upon the regime, but this time it was coming from the inside.

At the height of the protests, many pundits declared that the time was ripe for the Ayatollah and his men to be toppled, but the United States wisely stayed out if it (at least publicly). President Obama did little to encourage the protests, only calling for a fair election.

This was the way the Iranian opposition wanted it. If the United States had openly encouraged regime change, then the protesters, it could be said, would be doing the bidding of Washington. And in a country with such a poor history of foreign influence (see Operation Ajax 1953, the subsequent reign of the Shah 1953-1978, and the U.S. aid of Saddam Hussein 1980-1988), a position such as this taken by the U.S. would have been a non-starter for any opposition movement.

As expected, no matter how much Western leaders tried to stay out of the matter (publicly) the regime still tried to blame the unrest on foreign meddling. While this type of conspiratorial rhetoric may have played well with the crowds in the past, in this case the savvy Persians saw right through it and knew that the regime only had themselves to blame for the unhappiness of the people.

However, contrary to the wishful thinking of some, the regime in Tehran remains very strong and its immanent demise remains unlikely. If one  looked only at clips of protests and listened to exiled opposition figures, one would assume that the regime is crumbling and that it is only a matter of weeks before Ayatollah Khamenei & President Ahmedinejad are fleeing for their lives as angry mobs storm their compounds. But this is just not the case.

To begin with, the unrest starts not with the masses, but between the elites. A subtle power struggle is taking place between the ultra-conservative Ahmedinejad & Khamenei set and the pragmatic-conservative Khatami-Rafsanjani clique. This latter group is extremely powerful and influential, so while they may be the opposition to the President and Ayatollah, they still very much represent a large swath of the establishment and it is because of them that the protests were initially allowed to flourish.

Even within the first group, President Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei, there is some friction. For years the Islamic jurisconsult, headed by the Ayatollah, was the heart and soul of power in the Islamic Republic. But over the last five years, that power has been slowly  eroding into the hands of the Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) headed by the President . This has occurred to the extent that  some analysts feel that Iran has morphed from a theocracy into a militocracy.

The position of the Ayatollah was eroded even further when he took a side in the election controversy. In Iran, the position of the Ayatollah is meant to be an above-it-all, objective, and unifying force that does not get involved or take sides in political issues. It is meant to guide the republic, similar to the Queen of England, but with far more formal power. When Khamenei sided with Ahmedinejad, he betrayed that objectivity and  further demonstrated how far the revolution had strayed from its original ideals.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the high-stakes game of cat and mouse that Iran is playing against the United States with its nuclear energy/weapons program. The United States has been scrambling to secure United Nations Security Council support for a sanctions against Iran. While the Obama administration has had some success with Russia (after making concessions of the Missile Defense System that was to be placed inside Russia’s zone of influence), China has steadfastly foiled any move against Tehran and it is highly unlikely that Beijing will change its tune at any point in the future.

Some have criticized President Obama for not taking a tougher stand, even going as far as to advocate a military intervention in Iran. Obama’s options seemed to be between diplomacy and war, but there was another option: do nothing, and so far this is the path that he has taken. Perhaps the intelligence that he is getting is suggesting that he let the situation in Iran play itself out, and there is evidence that this strategy is starting to pay off.

Recently, surrounding the Shia holiday of Ashura, protests started to spark back up. Adding to this is the recent passing of Grand Ayatollah Monterazi, one of the founders of the revolution who was a staunch and deeply respected critic of the regime. The two events have breathed new life into the movement, which has now spread to the heart of the theocratic establishment in the city of Qom.

Getting back to the original statement, that this so-called Green Revolution is more like a civil rights movement than a true revolution, the changes that the opposition is demanding are unlikely to satisfy the national security needs of countries like Israel, the United States, and the West in general. The powerful men at the top in Iran want to see change, but definitely not changes that could result in the lessening of their wealth or influence. And the vocal public at the other end of the opposition spectrum are not advocating for the overthrow of their government; they more likely just want changes in their civil liberties, like free speech and more transparent elections.

As events continue to evolve and unfold in Iran, it is unclear where the country is heading. The position of the Ayatollah has been weakened, the people have begun to speak out, and their discontent is starting to spread. One thing that is for sure is that things cannot go back to where they were before the June elections. For Iran, the cat is out of the bag.