Tea leaf reading: Yemen falls

Reading the Tea Leaves: Yemen Falls

From an e-mail sent to my colleague Osama Abi-Mershed, on Jan 15, 2011: “I think of all the conversations I've been having with Marcus Rediker [renowned historian of the 18th-century Atlantic World, whose most recent (prizewinning) book, Slave Ship, has been an international sensation], going back at least 5 years, about living in a revolutionary moment, with the entire system on the brink.  I'm more convinced than ever that such is true, and that one sees it in little things as much as big ones.”

[Ok, I exaggerated, Marcus and I have been having those conversations since fall 2008.  From 28 Jan 2011 e-mail to Marcus: “seems to me we have been talking for the last two or three years about how revolution is at hand.  nice to see our historical training wasn't wasted.”]

That comments raises the question, once the pot is stirred, how do you read the tea leaves?  “I do not see how a society (like Tunisia) can go on providing substantial education to its young people and then offer them no realistic hope of a decent job.  Rising expectations and stable or, even worse, reduced performance are a revolutionary mix.” Osama and I have been convinced since the second week of January that Ben Ali would fall, that Egypt would follow Tunisia (a point made in that same 15 January e-mail), that the events of January 2011 to the present are a Revolution, not local regime crises.  Those who have seen the C-Span video know that we urged media to shift from the term “crisis” to “Revolution” and that, likely by coincidence, places like CNN and al-Jazeera did so later in that week.

That comments raises the question, once the pot is stirred, how do you read the tea leaves?  “I do not see how a society (like Tunisia) can go on providing substantial education to its young people and then offer them no realistic hope of a decent job.  Rising expectations and stable or, even worse, reduced performance are a revolutionary mix.”

A recent story in the NY Times, one remarkably convenient from the standpoint of US policymakers btw, that presidents like Ben Ali and Mubarak would fall, but that monarchs (of whatever title) would survive (because they can blame and dismiss governments), seems premature, to say the least.  The monarchs of places like Bahrain and Oman may well survive, but Revolutions have no problem disposing of monarchs (alas for revolutionaries, the monarchs sometimes come back, albeit in drastically changed institutional frameworks).

What do the tea leaves say about Yemen?  Saleh, personally, is almost certain to go.  Yemen differs dramatically from Tunisia and Egypt, however, in that what will replace his regime is highly unlikely to be what is possible (but far from definite) in places like Tunisia.  {See post on What’s Next, Doc?}  In this post, I’ll look mainly to discourse; in the second post, you can see what a longue durée approach will tell us.

Tea leaf reading 101.

First, look for evidence within regime rhetoric of cognitive dissonance on the part of rulers.  Ben Ali’s regime showed those signs on January 13th (Ben Ali parliamentarian, on an al-Jazeera panel) and, of course, on January 14th, the night Ben Ali warbled his swan song.

Ali Abdullah Saleh

Just as the Tunisian deputy’s idiotic rant about “foreign” agents and criminals – idiotic precisely because everyone was watching the actual demonstrations on YouTube, so we all knew she was full of a barnyard substance – marked cognitive dissonance, so, too President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ridiculous charges that Israel is orchestrating the Revolution of 2011 warns that the end of his regime is nigh.  Saleh, relying on the old accuse-your-enemies-of-what-you-are-doing trick, also claims the US is behind the Revolution, and particularly behind the demonstrations in Yemen.  Given that Saleh’s government cooperates with US efforts to combat al Qaeda in Yemen (which John Brennan, the Deputy National Security Adviser, with special responsibility for homeland security and counterterrorism, claimed in mid December 2010 was more dangerous than al Qaeda in Pakistan-Afghanistan), we get a sense of Saleh’s desperation in making such a claim.  The use of anti-Semitism by Arab autocrats is another classic diversion.

Saleh, like Ben Ali and Mubarak before him, does not understand the new media age.  Relying on their control of state media – tv, radio – they cannot even imagine what it means to have some ordinary Yemeni or Tunisian or Egyptian reach thousands, even millions of people around the world with video of police brutality, at the touch of a button.  Being in power for 30 years, they have become far more out-of-touch than, say, someone like Pres. George H.W. Bush infamously showed himself to be during the 1992 election campaign (after he had spent 12 years as either Vice-President  or President): what American of a certain age can forget Bush’s amazement at encountering a scanner at the supermarket check-out line?  Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, Qaddafi – all of them were in power in 1981, too.  Is it any wonder that in 2011 they have long since lost touch with the societies they have been looting?  Saleh’s Israel comment is his checkout scanner moment.

So, they speak of “foreign terrorists” (all four of them), of al Qaeda (Qaddafi), of an Israeli plot (Saleh).  They make contradictory accusations, because they must appeal to varied audiences – to their own people, to the West, to the UN.  This kind of rhetorical inanity is a sure sign of pending regime collapse.

Second, watch for the desertion of key establishment religious figures, another certain sign of desperate times for a ruler.  We saw that in Egypt: when the leader of Al-Azhar in Cairo abandoned Mubarak, his regime was over.  In Libya, we have seen the major religious figures forsake Qaddafi – he’s still holding on to power in a small area, and will doubtless still cause the deaths of thousands of his countrymen, but his regime is finished.  In Yemen, yesterday, Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani openly sided with the protesters.  Clerics of whatever denomination, particularly those in positions of authority, must be very cautious in political upheavals, lest their “church” suffer for their indiscretion.  When they come out against a government, the government is on the brink of collapse.

Third, watch for the practical problems created by the cognitive dissonance (#1). When a government offers reconciliation, as Mubarak did by offering to step down in September 2011, and then orders a brutal crackdown the next day, thereby destroying what little credibility they might have had among non-demonstrators, they must go.  How many middle-aged people interviewed by al-Jazeera, BBC, et alia after Mubarak’s fall mentioned the cavalry episode in Tahrir Square as the turning point for them?  Of the ones I saw (between 10 and 20), all of them.

Saleh’s “Israel” charge means he is about to crack down, hard [writing here on Tuesday morning]: tying the demonstrators to Israel is an effort to dehumanize them, thus making it easier to justify killing them.  (Think of Qaddafi’s “cockroaches” comment, followed by use of aircraft to spread “pesticides,” in this case, for human cockroaches, bombs and bullets.)  The repudiation of Saleh’s regime by a leading cleric – known to all, thanks to modern media – will instantly trump the Israel card.

From Ben Ali to Saleh, the dictators have all blamed the media, especially al-Jazeera.  In a sense, they are right: the problem is precisely that the tyrants do not understand modern media.  I keep hearing Strother Martin telling Paul Newman, before administering yet another brutal beating in Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”  For Saleh, having failed with the only verbal language he knows, having failed with the language of patronage (the money he distributed to tribal leaders last week), he will have to turn to tyrantspeak: murder.  My guess is that message won’t get through, either.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *