First the Guns, Now the Butter

America shows two faces in Yemen—both meant to fight terror

Yet for the U.S., the friendship has clear rewards. In the last three years, hundreds of Yemeni Al Qaeda suspects have been rounded up, interrogated, and thrown into Yemeni and American prisons, where many of them remain.

Build people, not buildings

Sheikh Murdi Mabhooth Kuwalan (center) said he requested funding for a clinic.
photo: Kareem Fahim
Sheikh Murdi Mabhooth Kuwalan (center) said he requested funding for a clinic.

Majid al-Fahed, the civil society advocate, says there are two advantages from what he calls the oversimplified notion that Yemen's tribal lands are breeding grounds for terrorism. "One of the results is that everyone started talking about the tribes, which is good. And secondly, a lot of aid started coming to Yemen." The problem, he noted, is that the government tells foreign donors the way to fight terror is to focus on education, and the donors buy it. In the case of the Americans, the emphasis seems to be on building or renovating schools.

"Who are the terrorists? Aren't they often educated? The advantages of education usually take a long time," he said. "You have a tribesman. He's not educated. But he's connected to his tribe. They're like any system, based on values. When you educate him, you pull him away from the tribal system. Then you don't give him a good job. So he's educated, but he's not part of that system anymore." In a district like Saada, one of the governorates America is focused on, al-Fahed, who has an unnerving head for figures, said that one in six people is a student.

"There's no building problem up there. There are 11,000 high school students. Do you know how many physics teachers there are? Eighteen. English teachers? Twenty-eight. The textbooks normally arrive by the second half of the school year." The same problems, he said, plague health care. "I've told the Americans and the British, you don't need more hospitals. Bring physicians from abroad. Bring in a Chinese doctor, and the community will build a hospital around him."

Will democracy retreat?

Regardless of what happened in Saada this summer—and most seem to agree that the death toll was almost certainly higher than the government let on—at the very least, the secrecy that hangs over the operation bodes badly for a country that is making real strides toward openness. Civil rights activists say the imprisonment of Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani, who wrote critically about the president and his operation against al-Houthi, is only the latest example of a crackdown on rights in the name of fighting terror.

Khaiwani's case was just one of the topics activists discussed on a recent afternoon in the home of Ali Saif. Saif, the president of a Yemeni group called the Political Forum, holds a regular "democracy" khat chew at his home, bringing together political activists, journalists, and other interested parties.

A good part of Yemeni life revolves around the narcotic plant khat. For hours in the afternoon, Yemenis sit around in specially designed rooms, the leaves of the plant wadded up in their cheeks as they discuss and socialize. They sip soft drinks from large glass bottles, or water from tiny metal cups, as they chew. U.S. embassy staff attend these khat chews unofficially; as one officer put it, to skip these sessions would mean missing a large part of Yemen's story.

Last Wednesday, Saif took his place on the far side of his sitting room, or mafraj, a white, constantly ringing phone at his feet. Also, there was a genial former engineer who was hoping to spend his retirement teaching Yemenis democracy; a young Moroccan working with youth for a German group; a grizzled old journalist who writes for Yemen's official press ("I really don't like my job," he said); and a bald, distinguished-looking lawyer who had a few clients charged in Yemeni courts with political crimes. People said controversial things. "The outside world will not accept the logo of democracy while [Saleh] is still president," someone said.

Apart from Khaiwani's case, they talked about Judge Mohammed Ali Luqman, who was just sentenced to 10 years in prison, allegedly for backing al-Houthi's revolt, and Ali Jarallah, who is standing trial for the 2002 murder of a Yemeni liberal activist named Jarallah Omar.

Mohammed Qahtan walked in late, and the discussion paused as he made himself comfortable. Qahtan is the political director of Islah, one of Yemen's main opposition parties. His is a legal Islamic party, one with members spanning the ideological spectrum. Qahtan spoke at length when his turn came, about the fragility of Yemeni democracy. After the meeting broke up he talked about the challenges of being in the opposition, and he looked anxious to confound his listener's expectations. "We'd like to stress that we need more support from our friends in the West," he said. "I've learned from my religion to look at value, not the person. The Americans are not angels, but they're not devils." Qahtan said he favored Bush's Middle East initiative, and called on Islamists in other parts of the Arab world to do the same. "There is no one more victimized by these regimes, and no one more helped by democracy," he said.

Still, in Yemen, as in other Arab countries, there is a strong sense that American foreign policy in the region works at cross-purposes with any help the Yemenis get from the U.S. Last year, an organization of women's journalists here very publicly refused a $19,000 grant from the U.S. State Department-based Middle East Partnership Initiative, saying they couldn't accept the money in good conscience while Israel was assassinating prominent Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.

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