US Ambassador in Yemen: The New Dictator
The American ambassador increasingly casts himself in the guise of leader, with the acquiescence of bickering Yemeni politicians and military chiefs.
By Jamal Jubran
Tuesday, July 10 2012
Sanaa - His Excellency the Ambassador of the United States, Gerald Feierstein, arrives at the Italian ambassador’s residence to attend an Italian national day reception. He walks in with a frown, disregarding the other guests, and makes for a far corner of the garden with a glass of red wine in hand. Within moments, a gaggle of senior Yemeni officials rush towards him, each wanting to discuss a problem he is facing in running his respective department.
The scene is a microcosm of how Yemen has become under the trusteeship imposed on the country since a “consensual solution” to its political crisis was reached. This led both to the departure of President Ali Abdallah Saleh under the terms of the so-called Gulf Initiative, and to a firm line being drawn under Yemen’s youth-led revolution.
The same American ambassador appeared on Yemeni TV screens in an interview with the state channel and declared “we will not allow” the release of imprisoned journalist Abdel Ilah Shaeh, who was sentenced to five years in jail after exposing the killing of 35 women and children in a US drone strike in December 2009. Feierstein explained that Shaeh had extensive links with al-Qaeda and posed a threat to the security of the US.
He thus overruled for a second time the presidential pardon that the respected journalist obtained from Saleh before the outbreak of the revolution last year. The first time, a quick phone call from President Barack Obama was enough for Saleh to shelve the pardon and keep Shaeh behind bars.
The US and its envoy do not stop at that. When Yemeni journalists held a protest march to the American embassy to protest against what the ambassador said about their detained colleague, they saw vehicles used for transferring prisoners entering the embassy compound. It was learned that these vehicles convey terrorism suspects from the nearby central jail for interrogation inside the compound under the supervision of FBI terrorism experts.
The extent of American meddling was further highlighted by the publication on local and foreign websites of leaked letters from the US ambassador to Yemeni Interior Minister Abdul Qadir Qahtan, instructing him to make certain security personnel changes, which he described as necessary to helping bring civil peace to the country. This leaves no room for doubt that Feierstein has assumed a de facto governing role in Yemen, pushing for progress but only in the manner that he deems appropriate, and which does not, of course, conflict with broader US policy in Yemen.
The US ambassador had no qualms about paying a visit last week to Zinjibar in the province of Abyan, accompanied by the administrator of USAID, to inspect conditions in the town after the Yemeni army’s successful expulsion of the forces of Ansar al-Sharia. The group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, had controlled the region for nearly a year, imposing its brand of Islamic sharia and penalties. There were muted protests about the un-diplomatic nature of the visit from some of the country’s political groups, but no outright condemnation.
Nobody is objecting. All the officials concerned have come to treat Feierstein’s interferences, and Yemen’s indubitably subject status, as a fact of life.
Analyst Qaderi Ahmad Haidar says the country has indeed fallen under effective US trusteeship, and blames the Gulf Initiative and the mechanisms that were agreed to implement it. “It is a deplorable and lamentable picture we see today,” he told Al-Akhbar. “We didn’t expect the pure revolution of the Yemeni youth to end in this.”
The US ambassador’s pronouncements are incessant, and oblivious to the basic diplomatic norms that govern relations between two states. He is constantly making media appearances to discuss, explain and clarify aspects of Yemen’s daily affairs, as though he were the country’s undeclared president.
During the course of one recent appearance he said: “We are now in the second phase of the Gulf Initiative... I met with the president yesterday... We believe everyone should take part in the National Dialogue... President Obama has issued an executive order which enables us to punish individuals or groups who obstruct the implementation of the agreement (the Gulf Initiative)... We are working to restructure the army and security forces... We are pleased with what has been achieved so far... We are on the right track.”
The ambassador’s use of the first person when discussing Yemeni affairs strikes Muhammad Ayesh, editor of the independent newspaper al-Awwali, as telling. It serves to cast him not just as Yemen’s “governor,” but as a leader propelled by a transformative revolution into the country’s top position. “The political and military classes surrendered the country’s affairs completely to the world powers, and then preoccupied themselves with their internecine struggles,” Ayesh remarks. He notes that the country’s factions were incapable of reaching agreement on clearing barricades and evacuating armed forces from the major cities without the intercession of the US ambassador.
Journalist and political analyst Mansour Hael agrees that it is the weakness and fragmentation of the country’s political groups that is most to blame for turning the US ambassador into “the chief of country’s political and security operations room,” and effectively giving him the final say on a host of domestic issues.
“Yemenis have come to be governed by a state of division, horizontal and vertical. The national unity government is split, and there’s a split between civil society organizations and the political parties,” says Hael, who edits the newspaper Al-Tajammu. “That’s what allows the American ambassador to hold the all the political strings in Yemen.”