Political reform in Yemen will not occur overnight. Over the next two years, the government is slated to conduct a series of reforms, though it will almost certainly take longer. The military leadership will be shuffled. The constitution will be revised. New political parties will proliferate while old parties and centers of power will consolidate and adapt. Tribal organizations will jockey for power. The process of rebalancing the country’s political power will be long and at times very ugly, but it will be necessary for the reforms to be sustainable. The United States cannot ignore the fact that Saleh, both personally and through his relatives and proxies, will play a significant role in this reform. If Washington truly wants to help usher in democracy in Yemen, it must work with the breadth of Yemeni politics, including Saleh.
This arrangement is far from ideal. It is largely the result of the manifold faults of the GCC agreement, so far the only effect of which has been to grant Saleh immunity and set in motion the process that will formally remove him from the presidency. (Gregory Johnsen and Brian Whitaker were right to complain about the GCC deal’s faults from the beginning.) The United States’ unflagging commitment to the weak arrangement and the lack of credible alternative proposals was a critical failure of U.S. policy. But this is the agreement that was signed, not just by Saleh but by representatives of Yemeni opposition political parties as well.
The Right Choice
Immunity, no matter how distasteful, had to be part of the transition agreement in Yemen. Saleh never would have signed without it. Why would he, after the examples of Mubarak and Qaddafi? He had no incentive to step down into a domestic show trial or potential International Criminal Court indictment, not when he had demonstrated how easily he could stagnate the protest movement.
His strategy of delay was working. Over the summer and into the fall, the protest movement began to fragment as internal divisions and divergent interests became more pronounced. It seems likely that Saleh could have clung to power longer—and without the immunity clause, he probably would have. The GCC deal is a bad deal, but it was necessary to begin the process of introducing reforms. The United States should abide by it with the recognition that, as painful as it is to see justice denied to protesters who lost friends and loved ones to regime violence, it moves toward a Yemen that represents the interests of its people, so that events like those of the past year do not happen again.
Allowing Saleh to seek medical treatment in New York is a difficult choice, but ultimately the right one. The United States needs to play the long game, with the recognition that in the near-term Saleh will be more important in shaping reform in Yemen than the nonaligned populist protesters. The decision will provoke anger in Yemen and discomfort in Washington, but it is necessary to move toward sustainable democracy and complete Yemen’s revolution.
J. Dana Stuster is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.