“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."
Sunday, May 10, 2015
Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen
This BBC report appeared five weeks ago, warning about what was happening in Yemen. Here is a personal eye witness account from NPR on an American Family’s escape from Yemen, a day ago:
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We've brought you lots of stories about the Shia rebellion in Yemen. Here's the story of one American teenager and her family who are trying to get out of that war. We begin where our correspondent Gregory Warner met her, on a ferry boat.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The Amiri Red Sea steered into the port of Obock in Djibouti on Thursday morning having crossed the Gulf of Aden from Yemen the previous night. Usually a daytime touring boat, the vessel traveled at night to avoid coming under fire from Shia rebels. On the top level, the men. In the covered hall, women and girls in black headscarves. Of the nearly 200 refugees aboard, 23 are American, including 16-year-old Rhonia Aladashi from Dearborn, Mich.
RHONIA ALADASHI: This boat was awful. Like, it was shaking all the time because it's kind of cheap. They just gave us anything.
ABHA ALJAHMI: It's not cheap. It's 25,000.
WARNER: It's not cheap, says her mother, Abha Aljahmi. It's 25,000 rials for the 130-mile journey. That's a little over $100. But for her daughter, who's never seen a war up-close, this escape felt epic.
ALADASHI: We're like "Titanic." I was just going to open the - I was singing all the time.
WARNER: She spent most of the journey singing to herself songs from the movie "Titanic."
ALADASHI: I showed my sisters the film. That's why they got scared. I showed them in the Yemen.
WARNER: Oh, your sisters saw the "Titanic" movie?
ALADASHI: Yeah, so they thought - they're like, we're going to die like "Titanic." And you know, people were like throwing - it was funny - and scary.
WARNER: Her family's journey began in Sanaa, the capital, where they were visiting Rhonia's Yemeni father. When the rebels started bombing the city in late March, they fled to the village with relatives, but then her mom had to figure out how to get out of the country.
ALJAHMI: We went from villages to villages, from cities to city. And they had no electric, no place to stay.
WARNER: Aljahmi says she tried to get over the land border to Saudi Arabia - cheaper and safer than a sea passage. But they told her that she and her daughters were not allowed without a male escort. Her husband doesn't have an American passport. He couldn't go with them.
ALJAHMI: I asked Saudi Arabia. They said without a guy with me, I cannot go through.
WARNER: The Saudis sent her and her daughters back to the war zone. She's still furious. Aren't they are allies, she says? And Yemeni-Americans say they feel abandoned by America. While other countries have evacuated their citizens - Russia sent an army plane, India sent a navy vessel - the U.S. has declined to use its military to rescue its citizens. The State Department says it's been warning Americans for years not to go to Yemen. Rhonia remembers the day that the Russian evacuation plane arrived. It took one of her friends in the Koranic school where she's studying.
ALADASHI: She's a Russian and they came for her - airplane. I got so jealous that day.
WARNER: She was jealous because the bombing had resumed that day. But she says she can understand why the U.S. says a rescue is too risky. The rebels are deeply anti-American.
ALADASHI: So we even get scared to - if they're going to see our passports. So we hide them all the time. You know, we can get killed, that we're American citizens.
WARNER: From here, the way home to Michigan should be easier. The U.S. has more than doubled its consular staff in Djibouti to deal with the exodus of hundreds of American citizens, so long as they can find their own way to escape. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Djibouti.
Sectarian power grab tears Yemen apart
By Frank GardnerBBC security correspondent, Saudi Arabia
They called it Arabia Felix - Happy Arabia - because of its lush, rain-fed mountain scenery.
Today that epithet sounds tragically inappropriate.
Already the poorest country in the Middle East, wracked by soaring unemployment, dwindling oil and water reserves and home to the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda, now Yemen is being torn apart by war of many sides.
The Saudi-led air strikes began last month, raining down precision-guided missiles on a rebel group called the Houthis who swept down from their mountain stronghold in the far north six months ago, taking town after town, and pushing out the UN-recognised President Hadi.
That alarmed the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab states, especially as they suspect the hand of Iran as being behind the Houthis' spectacular blitzkrieg.
How else, Saudis keep saying to me, could an impoverished group of tribesmen get the training, the weapons and the money to take over half the country?
There's a sectarian angle here too. The Houthi rebels are Zaidi Shias, representing about a third of the population. The Saudi rulers are suspicious of Shias, many of whom look to Iran for spiritual leadership.
Saudi Arabia is a predominately Sunni Muslim country and the Saudis are starting to think they're getting encircled by proxies of Iran wherever they look: in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and now Yemen.
Enough, they said, drawing a line in the sand. At a secret summit in a Saudi palace last month they threw together a 10-nation coalition in a belated and possibly doomed Gulf Arab attempt to turn back the Houthi takeover of Yemen and restore their ally to power.
Change of presidents
But in fact the Houthis largely owe their military success to someone much closer to home. They've formed an alliance of convenience, a sort of pact with the devil, with the very man who tried to bomb them out of existence five years ago.
Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled first North Yemen, then a unified Yemen, for 35 years, until he was forced out of power by the Arab Spring protests.
He refused to believe that Yemen was better off without him. So he set about wrecking the peaceful political transition of power that Yemen's friends had worked so hard to engineer.
Whole units of the Republican Guard remained loyal to him, bombs went off and towns were fought over.
President Hadi who replaced him, an elderly, genial southerner, has been no match for Saleh's machinations. He must be rueing the day he agreed to let his predecessor stay on in Yemen.
I interviewed Saleh once, in his fortified palace in the capital, Sanaa. It did not go well.
Speaking in Arabic without a translator, I asked him what he wanted his legacy to be.
The unification of North and South Yemen, of course, he replied, this was his crowning achievement. I thought I would soften him up by asking what benefits this had brought, but the way I said it in Arabic came out as 'well what was the point of that?'
What? he barked, glaring at me furiously, summoning his official translator, and looking pointedly at his watch.
As president, Saleh fought six short wars against the Houthis until it ended in an uneasy truce. Now he's cynically using them to destroy those who he sees as usurping his power.
The Houthis are fierce, effective fighters, used to living on little in the black, volcanic mountains that straddle the Saudi-Yemeni border.
When I visited them in their stronghold city of Saada my girlfriend and I were woken on our first morning by a burst of heavy machinegun fire from a pickup truck outside in the street.
"It is celebration," said the man on reception, unfazed. Later we met a pair of brothers who took us out to the mountains to show off their skills with a Kalashnikov.
Chewing the narcotic qat leaf and racing across the desert in a beaten-up old car, they thought it was the biggest joke to swap places behind the wheel while driving at 60 miles an hour.
Their shooting was every bit as wild as their driving and before long a farmer emerged, shouting and cursing. "What the hell are you doing?" he said. "Bullets are coming down all around my sheep!"
I have no idea what dizzy heights those two rose to after that in Yemen's tribal hierarchy, but the Houthis and their allies are now in control of most of the important parts of Yemen, despite more than a week of airstrikes.
If those fail to dislodge them then the Saudis have not ruled out a ground invasion, but everyone knows that carries enormous risks of getting bogged down into a vulnerable army of occupation.
Instead, the Houthis face a more dangerous foe - the jihadists of al-Qaeda. The jihadists are Sunni fanatics and they hate all Shias, including the Houthis.
In Yemen, al-Qaeda seems to be the only force capable of confronting the rebels on the ground.
On Thursday, their ranks were swollen by a jailbreak of dozens of convicted al-Qaeda fighters. Soon they will be rallying the Sunni tribes to join forces and fight the Houthis from the North.
And all the while, the Americans look on from afar, in despair.
Until just a few weeks ago they thought they had a reliable partner in President Hadi. President Obama even held up Yemen as a shining example of a counter-terrorism partnership.
Now that partnership has crumbled to dust, and so too have Yemen's immediate hopes of emerging from this intractable nightmare.