Three myths of Ali Saleh’s immunity
The distance between “will be” and “should be” equals Saleh’s immunity.
1- Immunity is the quickest way to end Yemen’s revolution
The White House’s public argument remains unchanged despite an increasing level of exposure: Saleh and dozens of relatives must be coaxed out of power to “move Yemen forward.” Immunity is critical to uprooting Saleh’s network and implementing the GCC’s terms before the February 21 presidential election. Perhaps immunity remains the “quickest” way to end Yemen’s “crisis,” however this possibility isn’t as indisputable as the Obama administration argues. The natural counterargument is that immunity encourages Saleh’s destructive behavior, as it has since the Saudi-bankrolled GCC launched its initiative in May.
The GCC’s protection is trending towards the opposite end of the White House’s stated goal: “Giving these guys confidence that their era is over.” Instead Saleh has been provided with an internationally-legitimized tool to stall his exit and maintain influence afterward. Confident that his regime survived the GCC’s “transition,” Saleh has taken Western and GCC leniency as his cue to act as he sees fit, whether inside or outside of Yemen. The strongman invited himself to New York City, then “postponed” his trip after suspecting that he wouldn’t be received as President (returning didn’t appear to be an issue). Twice he has returned from Saudi Arabia, rumored as his new vacation spot, and he will almost certainly return again before February 21.
A minority of protesters remain open to Saleh’s immunity and exile so long as his regime follows, but this deal is preemptively compromised by other aspects of the GCC’s initiative. Saleh has already ignored a 30-day deadline to transfer executive power to his Vice President, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi; this “power struggle” is now being sold by Western capitals as political cover. Hadi did reach a combative state with Saleh’s family, primarily his son Ahmed, while filling in during Saleh’s medical leave to Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s 17-year VP also submitted an immunity draft covering “all those who worked with him [Saleh] during his presidency across all civilian, military and security apparatuses.”
Saleh still expects to lead Hadi’s campaign as a consensus candidate between his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). He has no intention of turning apolitical during the ensuing two-year transitional period.
The theory that Saleh will accept immunity over his loss of power commits a dangerous psychological error by appealing to reason. Washington as a whole publicly alternates between acknowledging Saleh’s renowned duplicity and pleading ignorance, leaking a story about "getting played" amid conditional approval for an American visa. His behavior suggests that he would rather be dead than powerless, a level of stubbornness mirrored in the Obama administration’s refusal to let go of his regime. Western and Gulf capitals continue to minimize Yemen’s revolution as a “crisis” to be resolved ASAP, demanding an end according to their time-lines and interests.
2- Immunity is necessary to combat Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
The complimentary theory to immunity centers around AQAP, now described as Al-Qaeda’s most evolved branch and one of America’s greatest threats. This theory contends that, by removing Saleh and his inner circle from Yemen’s equation, the country can “return to normal”; counter-terrorism units can switch from killing protesters to militants in the southern governorates. This theory may be true to an extent, since Saleh grew adroit at manipulating AQAP’s growth and allegedly funding proxy jihadists. The intense battle for Yemen’s Abyan, Aden and Marib governorates is a byproduct of his misrule, and Saleh's own general admitted to being abandoned over the summer. Other US technology and ammunition was redeployed against Yemen's Southern Movement (SM) or shifted to the Houthis' northern front.
If a government comes into power with no need to blackmail the international community or divert military assistance away from counter-terrorism, the US could finally join a capable partner in defeating AQAP.
Unfortunately this theory isn’t much tighter than Saleh’s immunity, essentially weighing Yemen’s military sphere above its political and social levels. The battle against AQAP is more ideological than physical, and removing Saleh through a legitimate process would inflict greater damage than cushioning his downfall. International headlines now read “the US defends Saleh’s immunity,” the literal manifestation of Al-Qaeda’s ideology. Only a handful of Yemenis have joined AQAP – revolutionaries want nothing to do with Al-Qaeda – but many recruits must have America's support for Saleh at the front of their minds.
3- Immunity in the name of democracy
Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, made modest headlines last week after warning Yemen’s GCC-approved “unity government” against granting immunity for crimes against humanity. Pillay’s comments may appear honest, but directing criticism at the remnants of Saleh’s regime is grossly manipulative; the UNSC is guilty of violating its own “international human rights obligations.” Hadi, the GPC and JMP are simply doing what the UNSC ordered them to do in October.
No aspect of the GCC’s initiative is truly democratic. Organized by Saleh and his foreign allies, GCC negotiations intentionally circumvented Yemen’s youth and civil movement through the unpopular JMP. Transparency is lacking across the GCC’s proposal, from its extensive negotiations to Saleh’s signature in Riyadh, to February’s ambiguous election and oversight of Yemen’s military command. No official copy of the GCC's initiative has been released, forcing protesters to guess what happens next, nor is Yemen a GCC member. All parts of the initiative, especially its power-sharing and immunity terms, are designed to confuse and divide Yemen’s opposition.
Granting this immunity has nothing to do with genuine democracy, only the political expediency of external powers.
James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C.