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Yemen in the Spring

Once elections take place in Iraq, the U.S. military may remain for a few years, but its likely Al-Qaeda won’t. Al-Qaeda’s goal in Iraq is to foment a civil war, empower Sunni extremists and create a Taliban style utopia. The false identity of “resistance” falls apart in the face of a legitimately elected government, even to those rooting for their success like Al-Jazeera and France.

Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi has stated that once the Iraqi government “extends its control over the country, we will have to pack our bags and break camp for another land.” Facing increasingly democratic regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and mounting pressure in Pakistan, Al-Qaeda may attempt to regroup in Yemen, one of the least developed countries in the world.

Since the reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990, and the subsequent civil war, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh has maintained his political domination over his socialist rivals through an association with Islamist parties. Because of this political alliance, Yemen refused to crackdown on Al-Qaeda after the U.S.S. Cole bombing and even after Sept. 11, until the U.S. threatened military action in 2002.

That was also the year Freedom House changed Yemen’s ranking from partially free to not free. Nonetheless, Yemen is in theory making the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. On the street, Yemenis are enthusiastic about democracy, even in the face of grinding poverty and staggering unemployment. President Saleh has called democracy “the rescue ship” for political regimes, although he himself has not been quick to engage in meaningful power sharing.

The U.S. has been quietly wielding soft power in Yemen in the form of both anti-terrorism assistance (new speed boats for the coast guard, training programs) and developmental aid to this, one of the poorest Arab nations.

In preparing for the influx of terrorists to Yemen in the spring, the U.S. should focus on winning the war of ideas in Yemen among Yemenis now. A September 12 strategy for the U.S. would call for empowering the moderates, the reformers, and the pro-democracy elements of Yemeni society.

And there are moderate, pro-democracy elements in Yemen firmly committed to the establishment of a self-determining Yemen, and as such, they are no fans of jihad.

The arena of diverse thought and the “political space” in Yemen is found in the independent print media, which has taken a lead in calling for democratic reform. As a result, the press is currently under attack by the executive and its tool, the judiciary.

Four months ago Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani, the editor-in-chief of the opposition Al-Shura Weekly, was sentenced a prison term of a year at hard labor because of a series of articles critical of governmental performance. He has been beaten and is prohibited from touching a pen. Last week, the Press and Publications Attorney presented seven more editors and journalists for trial on similar charges.

Yemen is a potential candidate for the “Threshold Millennium Challenge Account” wherein “development assistance would be provided to those countries that rule justly, invest in their people, and encourage economic freedom.” While these quiet inducements to “rule justly” have their impact, any move toward real power sharing has been difficult to achieve in Yemen. A strong, official U.S. statement in support of free speech may help convince the good people of Yemen that the U.S. supports their democratic intentions.

The strategy for success in Iraq, that people will reject extremism when a hope of freedom exists, should be employed in Yemen now, in advance of the arrival of Al-Qaeda from Iraq next spring. The press, which acts as a watchdog against corruption and governmental improprieties, is essential for democratic progress. The targeting of the opposition and independent media in Yemen indicates a disturbing new trend toward authoritarianism in Yemen that is best opposed at its onset.

The death sentence handed down in Yemen to two Al-Qaeda operatives convicted in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole may indicate a new intolerance for terrorism by the Yemeni government. Flourishing democratic institutions, specifically the free press, may strengthen that intolerance in Yemeni society as well.

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