Whoever replaces Saleh will inherit a country on the brink of becoming a failed state. There is a secessionist movement in the south. Pirates roam its waters. A rebellion in the north has been a proxy fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Half of Yemen’s citizens are illiterate. A third are unemployed. Drinking water is scarce, yet the population is growing at one of the fastest clips in the world, far outpacing the government’s ability to provide even the most basic services. Half the country lacks toilets.
In other words, it’s already nine-tenths of the way towards becoming Somalia, replete with Islamists jockeying to call the shots for huge swaths of the country. And now, after weeks of protests, crackdowns, and military defections that left armored units pointing tanks at each other, it might be ready to go that last tenth of the way:
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the country’s top general are hashing out a political settlement in which both men would resign from their positions within days in favor of a civilian-led transitional government, according to three people familiar with the situation…
The apparent breakthrough came after a marathon round of acrimonious telephone discussions, via aides, that started around 9 p.m. Wednesday between the president at his official residence and the general, who was at his home in downtown San’a, the people said.
The people said that President Saleh and Gen. Ahmar agreed to the central demand of the protest movement: that a civilian council should rule in place of Mr. Saleh, instead of an Egyptian-style military council.
The “good” news is that Ahmar is known to be sympathetic to jihadists, so if he’s true to his word about relinquishing power (giggle), at least that’s one terrorist enabler we don’t have to worry about. What do we have to worry about? Well…
Yemen strategically borders the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and Saudi Arabia. If Saleh is overthrown, civil wars could erupt in both the north and south, the Saudis would be rattled and possibly intervene militarily, Iran would almost surely exploit the chaos and the U.S. would be dealt a major setback in containing Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an entrenched terrorist affiliate.
Left unmentioned: One of the organizers of the recent protests is the Islah party, led by Sheik Abdel-Majid al-Zindani. Zindai’s a personal friend of Osama Bin Laden’s and has been on the U.S. terror list for years. To give you a sense of what sort of crankery he’s capable of, read this. And yet, he has enough clout in the post-apocalyptic Thunderdome that is (or soon will be) Yemen that questions like the following can be credibly posed to the U.S. ambassador:
Yemen Times: Does the U.S. have a problem with the Islah taking power, being an Islamic ideology?
Ambassador Feierstein: I think that what we would like to see is a free and fair election…
Yemen Times: Even if it happens like Hamas and Palestine?
Ambassador Feierstein: Well, we have problems with Hamas in Palestine, but also because they’re a terrorist organization and they support violence and terrorism against Israel. So if you’re saying, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, as you know, is on the terrorism list both of the United States and the United Nations, and so would we have a problem if he were elected President, absolutely…
In other words, the long-feared nightmare scenario about Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy is toppled and ends up being replaced by terror-supporting Wahhabist nuts, might be about to come true on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. Which, let me stress, is not meant as a defense of Saleh: He’s a cretin like Ben Ali and Mubarak were, and as Tom Joscelyn reminds us at the Weekly Standard, in practice he hasn’t been nearly as hard on terrorists in Yemen as he’d like westerners to believe. The hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki may become marginally harder if Saleh falls, but the country is so crippled with problems that whoever replaces him won’t have many resources available to hunt jihadis even if he wants to. We’re going to have to pick up the slack — which, sporadically, we’ve already been doing in Yemen for years.
Exit question: Anyone not think the Saudis are contemplating a major, major military build-up right now? They’ve been worried for years about Iranian influence to the north in Iraq; now they’ve got a Shiite uprising in Bahrain to the east and all hell breaking loose, with Iran in the mix, to the south in Yemen. What could go wrong?