Aid Won't Fix The Crisis in Yemen

Yemeni demonstrators hold the flag of former South Yemen during a protest in Radfan on July 25. (Photo: AFP-Getty Images)

On July 17, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh celebrated the 31st anniversary of his ascension to power. The Sana'a regime, perverted by corruption, is largely unable to provide public services, including water, electricity, security, medical care and education. A third of Yemenis—7 million people—are malnourished. Police and military units act as enforcers for corrupt officials. The judiciary dispenses political retribution. Torture in Yemeni jails is systemic and brutal.

On his anniversary, Saleh published an essay calling for dialog and tolerance. The same week, 18 protesters were killed by police, a journalist sentenced to jail and an opposition party prevented from holding its conference. A four-year rebellion in the north and a two-year uprising in the south threaten to engulf the nation in violence. Known al Qaeda operatives roam the capital freely, and teenage suicide bombers routinely target elderly tourists.

Yemen's donors believe stabilizing President Saleh's regime will thwart the devolution of Yemen into a failed state and an al Qaeda safe haven. U.S. aid proposed for 2010 is at the highest levels in years. The Department of Defense allocated $66 million in military aid, mostly for patrol boats and armored pick-ups. Congress' Foreign Operation Appropriation bill includes an additional $15 million in military aid and $40 million in development and economic aid. Other humanitarian aid is channeled through USAID. However, increased funding to Yemen is a questionable strategy that may escalate instability.

Yemen already receives more aid than it can effectively absorb. Donors pledged $4.6 billion in 2006. Yemen declared "renewed commitment to urgent reforms." Years later, the state is still drawing up implementation plans for much of the funds. The lack of progress was a significant disappointment, yet predictable in an environment of rampant corruption. Billions in aid, oil revenue and other state funds are embezzled, stolen, diverted or misdirected, without consequence. Absent strict oversight, aid is subject to elite capture and often does not reach intended recipients.

U.S. military aid intended for border security may wind up fueling atrocities. The Yemeni military bombed cities and villages heavily in the northern Sa'ada province while countering a rebellion that began in 2004. The Sa'ada War, dubbed "Yemen's Darfur," forced nearly 200,000 citizens to flee their homes. The government blocked food, aid and medicine to 700,000 Sa'ada residents in "an act that appears to constitute an illegal collective punishment," Human Rights Watch found. Officials explained the deliberate starvation was meant to pressure villagers to turn over rebel fighters.

The small band of Zaidi rebels—triggered by political exclusion—grew to thousands. They claim they are acting in self-defense against a Wahabbi-inspired campaign of Shiite eradication. The Yemeni government insists the rebels seek to re-establish a theocratic monarchy.

The latest ceasefire required the release of arbitrarily arrested Hashemite men and boys, but hundreds are still in jail. With the government's mediation committee headed by a major arms dealer, sporadic clashes indicate the war will likely resume and may spread beyond its previous boundaries to engulf the nation. The International Crisis Group recommends that to preserve the fragile peace, external parties "refrain from military assistance to the parties in conflict, including the Yemeni government."

In South Yemen, massacres of protesters have become routine. The "southern mobility movement" began in 2007, calling for equal rights denied after 1990's unity of North and South Yemen. The government's response to the unrest was to shoot into the crowds and arrest thousands, sparking a cycle of civil unrest. Dozens of citizens were "deliberately killed or died as a result of excessive use of force by the security forces during peaceful protests," Amnesty International said. In June, there were 42 demonstrations, 17 injuries and five deaths. On July 23, a particularly bloody day, 18 protesters were killed during a demonstration in Zanzibar, Abyan. Protesters are now demanding southern independence and allege the unified Yemeni state is illegal under international law. With no end in sight, U.S. military aid—even trucks—may inadvertently facilitate the civilian slaughter.

Saleh's regime is also engaged in a drastic campaign of media repression. Journalists have been banned from Sa'ada since 2004 and jailed for writing about the war. As unrest escalates in the south, so does the punishment of journalists who report the news. The non-governmental media is being forced into bankruptcy, court and prison. Bumping foreign aid in the midst of this massive media repression sends the wrong message from the U.S. to the Yemeni people.

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the "months-long assault on the media" where "physical assaults have been coupled with dozens of arrests of independent journalists, editors and bloggers." The government banned seven independent newspapers, including the long-established al-Ayyam, forcing hundreds of journalists out of work. Police disrupted demonstrations supporting al Ayyam with live fire. Dozens of Yemeni news websites are blocked. In Yemen, al Qaeda has greater Internet freedom than reformers.

Perhaps the fundamental question for the donor community, especially the U.S., is how to best secure their citizens from the growing terror threat from Yemen. A more active and visible presence of al Qaeda heightens concerns about Yemen's potential implosion. Since 2007, nearly a dozen so-called al Qaeda attacks targeted tourists and foreign interests, including the U.S. Embassy. However, the ecosystems that nurture al Qaeda in Yemen and regionally are supported by Yemeni state resources, as are a variety of criminal enterprises. The idea that President Saleh put the fight against al Qaeda on the back burner because of civil unrest is misguided. Al Qaeda thrived in Yemen because it was nurtured, not neglected.

The final president of South Yemen, Ali Salem al Beidh, said the Sana'a regime is creating regional crisis, "not only in our occupied South Yemen but also in Somalia, as well as in the weapon markets in Yemen and in the Al-Qaeda Organization cells in Saudi Arabia. It ranges from launching an air bridge to ensure the flow of jihadist terrorism to Iraq, to sending Yemeni official equipment, arms and ammunition to the Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, to controlling the outlets of weapon and drugs trafficking and money laundering."

Yemen's counter-terror policies are farcical and include releasing convicted terrorists, pretending terrorists are in jail or dead, and other elaborate ploys to deceive Western nations. Saleh deployed jihadists during Yemen's 1994 civil war and in the recent Sa'ada War and appears ready to unleash these terrorists against protesters in the south. Local media reported numerous al Qaeda training camps within or facilitated by the Yemeni military. Scores of terrorists receive military salaries. Fears that without Saleh the resulting vacuum will allow terrorist entrenchment ignores the reality on the ground.

There is nothing to suggest that the regime would sincerely battle al Qaeda if it rid itself of other distractions. A truce in 2003 between the Yemeni al Qaeda and the regime led to several years where terror activity was externally directed. Reports indicate that Saleh requested additional jihadists from Ayman al Zawahiri late in 2008. Within months, an influx of foreign jihadists began amassing in Sa'ada. The survival of the regime hinges on fundamentalist support.

President Saleh uses jihadists and the takfist ideology against his political rivals. Moderates, intellectuals, reformers, Shiite rebels, secularists and southern socialists are all apostates according to Saleh. The Defense Ministry published a fatwa legitimizing jihad in defense of the state. Hardcore Salafi preachers issued a 2006 fatwa that opposition to Saleh was un-Islamic. The government supports the spread of extremist schools and risks creating a generation of fanatics. The weakening of Saleh's grip would necessarily bring about an enhanced political pluralism and balance of ideologies. Yemen historically is a pluralistic and tolerant society.

The structural remedy to corruption, violence against civilians and extremist thinking is a free press. Good governance cannot exist without it. Dialog among citizens occurs in the media. If there is one lever for reform, it is the Yemeni press. It is imperative to tie necessary aid to the ability of journalists to perform their jobs without retribution. The Yemeni press heroically weathers the punishment for performing its watchdog role. But it is on the brink of extinction.

One trigger of instability (or perhaps progress) in Yemen is the administration's visible failure to reform. As the elite are unmasked as epically corrupt, public discontent grows. If the U.S. wants to support Yemen's "nascent democracy," it must realize that popular will can leverage reform, as donor aid cannot. Any successful anti-corruption campaign results in the displacement of the corrupt elite, thus reform in Yemen is systematically undermined from within.

For over a decade, Saleh's toxic dictatorship ravaged Yemen's human and natural resources, institutions and economy. Artificially prolonging the Sana'a regime is a strategy that failed already. Yemen, in all or in part, may transition from authoritarianism to responsible governance, and perhaps today is closer than ever. While the U.S. does not endorse or support a leadership change in Yemen, neither should it actively thwart the natural democratic progression of the state. Throwing out the tyrant is standard procedure in a revolution.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and blogger well known in Yemen. The author of over 60 articles on Yemen's internal affairs, her website armiesofliberation.com has been banned in Yemen since 2006.