Cohen: Yemen’s power struggle highlights American exceptionalism

Marshall Cohen

After months of protests in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed Monday to step down within the next 30 days as part of a deal negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The details of the plan include a transfer of power from Saleh to his current vice president, as well as an assurance of immunity from prosecution.

Still, half a million protesters responded by gathering in the capital city of Sanaa on Monday. While formal opposition groups involved in the negotiations agreed upon the deal, protesters in the streets objected to the immunity clause.

Government forces have killed 270 people and over 1,000 others were injured during the crackdown, according to Al-Jazeera reports.

Saleh has held on to power for 32 years, dating back to when Jimmy Carter was in office.

But after a string of violent demonstrations and military defections, making up the largest protest during his 32-year rule, Saleh has agreed to step aside and resign. The very first transfer of presidential power in the history of the Republic of Yemen is about to occur.

This violent but revolutionary transition of command highlights American exceptionalism-though not in the typical sense. Whereas Saleh’s planned transfer of power will be a monumental moment in Yemeni history, the United States has changed heads of state 43 times.

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is writing a book, slated to come out in June, titled “A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters.” His book will surely contain numerous reasons why America naturally is, and should continue to be, the most powerful and successful nation in the world.

Gingrich claims that the United States was destined by God to be the leading nation in the world, and that we are a shining model of capitalism and freedom for everyone else to admire.

I do believe in American exceptionalism – but not in Gingrich’s twisted and borderline- xenophobic sense. Rather, exceptionalism can be found in our tradition of peaceful transitions of power.

For over 230 years, we’ve voted freely and democratically elected our local, state and federal representatives in government. Presidential transitions from one party to the other have been both commonplace and peaceful.

I don’t know if America is the strongest country in the world. And I don’t know if God specifically gave America its wealth and prosperity in order to make us superior to all other nations.

Those issues aren’t for me to decide. All I can do is look at our history.

The United States of America has been able to accomplish something that other countries have struggled with for almost all of history: maintain a thriving democracy.

No president has ever barricaded himself in the White House. No president has ever blatantly arrested his political enemies without reason. No president has systematically killed Americans simply because they decided to speak out. No president has ruled under the guise of emergency law.

While a besieged White House may seem ludicrous, such actions have been facts of life in the Middle East over the past months. There has never been a Republic of Yemen without Saleh. But yesterday in Sanaa, citizens took the first step toward a more democratic future.

The people of the world should not look at the American race, religion, economy or military for inspiration. All they need to do is take a look in the appendix of any American history textbook and see the list of American presidents, one name peacefully printed after another.

Marshall Cohen is a Medill freshman. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed at

Watch a snapshot of Monday’s protests in Sanaa below: