America Welcomes Yemen Elections, Remains Wary of al Qaeda’s Influence

The country’s elections herald a tentative first step toward democracy—but the U.S. remains wary of al Qaeda’s growing influence in the region.

Mohammed Huwais, AFP / Getty Images

Al Qaeda wasn’t on the ballot in Yemen today. But to listen to some U.S. officials, you’d think it was the only party that really counted.

At a small press conference in the capital, Sana, earlier this week, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, on his seventh trip to Yemen in three years, agreed with a reporter about the risk that increasingly powerful al Qaeda forces would storm Aden, the country’s largest port. “You’re absolutely right about the threat that al Qaeda poses,” said Brennan. “They are evil,” he added later. “And the United States is committed to working with our Yemeni brothers and sisters to confront that evil.”

That air of urgency may well be justified. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains the strongest, most aggressive affiliate of the group that attacked the United States in September 2001. Even before President Obama dispatched the U.S. Navy SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, he’d decimated the old core of the organization there with relentless drone attacks. But at the same time, Yemen was becoming the most critical danger zone in the fight against terrorists who might target the United States again.

During the last year, with one drone after another searching Yemen’s territory, the Americans managed to snuff out senior al Qaeda leaders from the air. Among them was U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading al Qaeda propagandist. In some of the hottest combat areas, American soldiers were also deployed on the ground to provide, as Brennan put it, “advice and assistance” to Yemeni forces. But the bad guys, taking advantage of the country’s political turmoil, have continued to gain ground—to the extent that some analysts question whether the Yemeni government is sincerely committed to fighting al Qaeda. At the same meeting with the press this week, Brennan conceded that “some individuals within Yemen have exploited al Qaeda’s presence here for the wrong purposes.” In plain English, they milked the Americans for money while coddling some of the al Qaeda killers.

So what does all this have to do with democracy in Yemen? As Americans understand the term, not much. There were no opposition parties at all on the country’s ballot today. The Americans backed a deal brokered by the Saudis and other rich Gulf states that gave the Yemenis the choice of casting their votes for Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the current vice president, or not voting at all—which would still result in Hadi becoming president, at least for a while.

But in the enormously complicated world of Yemeni politics, which encompasses ancient family feuds, rivalries within the military, tribal prerogatives, sectors of the country in open rebellion, hopeful young protesters anxious to take part in the 21st century, and, yes, al Qaeda and its sympathizers, this electoral exercise does make some sense.

For starters, it formally removes President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years in power. One of the truisms of the so-called Arab Spring is that the longer an old dictator has been in power, the more young protestors fixate on him. In Yemen, where half the population is younger than 18, the almost 70-year-old Saleh looked ancient indeed.

The choice of Hadi was agreed upon by many of the traditional powers in Yemen, including leaders of tribal confederations and established opposition parties. So the elections can be understood, says Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, “as an affirmation,” a variation on the Arabian tradition of bayat, or a pledge of allegiance to the new leader.

But the young people whose protests started this political transition are conspicuously absent from that loyal consensus. Many, to be sure, are thankful that their dictator has not held on as remorselessly as the Assad dynasty in Syria. But they also have the example of Egypt as a revolution betrayed by the elders who said they would set things straight. They note that Saleh, now in the United States recovering from wounds suffered in a terrorist bombing last year, is due to return to the country as a “private citizen” whose relatives still command many of the country’s most powerful institutions. Hadi, who succeeds him, has served as Saleh’s hand-picked vice president since 1994.

After a year of protests, as one widely read blogger put it, Yemenis got “an imposed transitional power deal” brokered by the Gulf monarchies and backed by the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union, “which did not address any of the revolution’s demands” for the modernization of the country’s political and economic systems. The $100 million in humanitarian and development assistance that the United States has given Yemen over the last year is a small fraction of what’s needed. Even when it comes to the fight against al Qaeda, warns Bodine, “we are not going to get the level of stability that will help us address our security concerns if we focus only on ‘security.’”

The risk of relying on the Yemeni military is made all the more obvious by the potentially bloody rivalries among commanders. One of the most influential sided with the young protestors early on--and now, like them, has been left out of the deal. How he and his troops in the capital react to the election remains an open question. Saleh’s son Ahmed commands the elite Presidential Guard, but is privately viewed by some U.S. officials as a dilettante whose presence would not be missed. On the other hand, Saleh’s nephew Yehya is the head of the country’s main intelligence organization and a key player in the American-backed fight against al Qaeda. If, as has been rumored, he wants to leave his post to pursue business interests outside Yemen, he could well be replaced by his brother Tariq, who heads another security operation set up by the Americans and the British after 9/11.

Brennan was surprisingly frank about the American intent to support the officers it thinks are cooperative, and cut off those it doesn’t like: a fairly blatant effort to micromanage the security operations of another country. “We want to be able to increase our assistance, but the Yemeni armed forces mission has to be clearly understood, especially by those military commanders,” said Brennan, “and those commanders have to understand that their mission is not to fight other military commanders, it’s to fight those terrorists who are murdering Yemenis.”

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No, al Qaeda was not on the ballot today, but it was—and remains—the main reason the United States cares about Yemen at all.