Soldiers at demonstration in Yemen 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since unrest began flooding through the Middle East, Western assessments have
been colored by hopes and expectations as much as by the events. Media
and governments alike have waxed neareuphoric in bestowing righteousness on
those who break with the incumbent rulers. While great attention is paid to past
infamies, little understanding of possible successor regimes has been
Regarding Egypt, for instance, a military council was stipulated
to hold only the purest of motives, although no proof was forthcoming. Even the
denouncement by Mohammed ElBaradei (the opposition leader with arguably the most
prominent international profile) of the council’s proposed constitutional
changes as a “dictator’s constitution” failed to alter the tone of coverage – at
least until the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the clear winner in that
Yemen, as a case-in-point, is frightening. The formula there
for both media and diplomacy has been “anti-Saleh good” and “pro-Saleh bad,”
leaving no room for further due diligence. So when General Ali Muhsin Al-Ahmar
defected from the Saleh camp it was by definition a good thing. But has anyone
bothered to examine Al-Ahmar’s past performances, and question whether his ties
to al-Qa’ida are still intact? Could he be a front man for the international
Although the US government professes the war against
terror to be a priority in the Middle East, apparently no one is paying
attention to this very issue.
WHAT MANY fail to realize about this
general is that his defection may not be totally related to the call for change
advocated by protesters in the streets. Al-Ahmar has been known to be strongly
affiliated with al-Qa’ida. According to a 2005 cable by the American ambassador
to Yemen, Thomas Krajeski, revealed by Wikileaks, Al-Ahmar appears to have
amassed a fortune in the smuggling of arms, food staples, and consumer products.
He is what we call in the Arab world a “war prince”– someone who benefits from
times of conflict.
Signs backing this analysis are already showing in the
southern governorate of Abyan, where the US attacked an al-Qa’ida training camp
in 2009. The camp was allegedly run by Al-Ahmar, yet this did not seem to
resonate with either US thinkers or Yemeni authorities.
“It is all about
power struggle,” cry out youth activists in Change Square as they complain of
losing faith in all political parties – both inside and outside the
In fact, the United States was not spared protesters’ angst, as
bullet casings and other armament were displayed on television with a sign
reading, “Made in USA” and accompanied by shouts of “the US is killing us!”
what is America’s involvement in Yemen? Is the longstanding commitment to
support President Saleh in the war against terrorism still operative? If so, is
Saleh’s friendship and protection of Yemeni leader Abdulmajid Al-Zindani –
frequently on the “Most Wanted al-Qa’ida” list – problematic? Or must Saleh
answer for Al-Ahmar’s use of jihadis to fight Shi’ite rebels linked to Iran
between 2004 and 2008?
There is more to Yemen than is being reported or
discussed, in the media and behind closed doors whether in Washington or Sana’a.
The US needs to stay focused and understand the dynamics of Yemeni politics in
order to really address the issue of terrorism. As events continue to
unfold, who is on whose team today seems to be of minimal concern. But the
street’s rejection of such arbitrariness is becoming louder and less ambiguous
than the voices of politicians.
It’s that voice that needs to be
heard.Felice Friedson is president and CEO of The Media Line Ltd, an
American news agency specializing in coverage of the Middle East. Nadia
Al-Sakkaf is the editor of
The Yemen Times since 2005, a Yemeni human rights
activist and strong promoter of women empowerment and civil society development.
Together, Friedson and Al-Sakkaf are behind Women of Mideast Media, an effort to
support, train and empower women for careers in media in the Middle
East. Friedson can be reached at felice–firstname.lastname@example.org, Al-Sakkaf at