Yemen will be the big test for democracy vs. Al Qaeda

The Yemen protests are working. Ali Abdullah Saleh is likely on the way out. But a democracy in Yemen will be up against the terrorist group's vision of violence.

Is democracy the best repellent against Al Qaeda in Muslim countries?

That question, which Americans have debated since the invasion of Iraq, may finally get its ultimate test in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.

Yemen’s longtime ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is losing power quickly. Thousands of young people have kept peaceful street vigils for democracy since Feb. 21, inspired by Egypt’s ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Last Friday, Mr. Saleh’s legitimacy fell dramatically after security forces killed nearly 50 protesters near Sanaa University and Taghyir (Change) Square.

That slaughter of civilians has now triggered high-level defections of top generals and tribal leaders, who finally recognize the ideals of the disaffected youth and the hollow promises of reform by Saleh.

It may also have ended President Obama’s strong support of Saleh, who has received millions in US aid for his fight against Islamic militants.

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya, Yemen is home to a branch of Al Qaeda that American officials say is “probably the most significant risk to the US homeland” – even more dangerous than Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Both the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 and the discovery of parcel bombs on an aircraft bound for the US last year originated from the group, which is known as Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In addition, the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood was linked to a radical Yemeni-American cleric, Anwar Aulaqi, who operates from the country.

If the “youth revolution” in Yemen leads to democracy – a big unknown for such a tribal, violent, and poor nation – Al Qaeda could be the big loser, as it is so far in other Arab revolts that have been largely secular in nature.

The terrorist group has thrived in opposition to US-backed autocrats like Saleh. But after Egyptians won their struggle for democracy, Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ayman Zawahiri, warned them that they were deviating from Islam, saying democracy “can only be nonreligious.”

Democracy would not be easy in Yemen. Two-thirds of its 23 million people are under 25. The educated students protesting in the capital know there are few jobs for them. The nation is running out of oil and its water sources are few.

Fortunately, AQAP has not found fertile ground in Yemen, even though it has struck at many military and government targets. Its vision of an Islamic caliphate ruling over Muslim lands has little appeal. The ideals of liberty and a modern economy hold more sway.

That struggle over competing visions won’t end when Saleh leaves. Still, many of the young protesters in Yemen, like those in Cairo last month, have been astonished at their sense of unity despite strong tribal differences. They have redefined themselves by their ideals of freedom based on peaceful protest, finding common ground that can be a strong defense against the kind of terrorism based on a false notion of Islam.

The US must be ready to divert its aid to Yemen toward helping build up the democracy and a budding economy, as it is doing in Egypt. Al Qaeda could well lose ground in Yemen simply by the emptiness of its promise.

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