The Difficulties of Moving Forward in Yemen

Why Saleh's abdication may bring Yemen's long-simmering conflict to a boil.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s surprising decision to transfer power to his deputy on November 23 has been greeted with approval in Riyadh, Washington and at the United Nations. Yet it has elicited a broader range of emotions in Yemen itself, including jubilation, indifference and outright hostility. Saleh’s agreement to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) transition plan represents the first of many steps toward addressing—though not necessarily resolving—one of the Middle East’s most intractable crises. It also unleashes divisions that will complicate the tasks of shaping and installing a successor government. Given the upheavals of the past year, prospects for positive change are uncertain.

First, there is the procedural question of translating the GCC plan into practice. On paper, the agreement, first proposed in April, is straightforward: Saleh transfers authority to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi in exchange for immunity from prosecution; al-Hadi supervises the formation of a transitional unity government split evenly between the ruling party and the parliamentary opposition; nationwide presidential elections are held within ninety days; the new president oversees a national dialogue on constitutional reform; and a popular referendum on the reforms and a general election are held within two years. Al-Hadi set the election for February 21, 2012. Until then, Saleh retains the honorary title of “president.”

Led by al-Hadi, the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and opposition umbrella group Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) are assembling a unity government and have designated al-Hadi as the consensus—and sole—candidate for the interim presidency. Within the GCC plan, executive authorities and an absolute legislative majority would remain with the GPC, thereby allowing the ruling party to dictate the nature and tempo of constitutional reform and dominate the general election over the next two years.

This raises a political question: Can the GCC plan generate a workable solution to the current impasse? The regime is conforming to the letter of the agreement, but the plan could crumble under the weight of Yemen’s complicated and delicate political balance of power. Steering the proposed changes through the country’s complex political system would have been possible, though not simple, had Saleh resigned when the uprising began in the spring. His delay in doing so, after months of proliferating violence and widespread protests and defections, severely sharpens the challenges facing the transitional authority.

Most prominently, the GCC plan calls for legislative compromise between the ruling party and its opponents, but it does not constitute a truly national settlement. This unity government must “conduct dialogues” with the street demonstrators but need not include their representatives in the transition process. Thus, the tens of thousands of predominantly young protestors, many of whom feel their actions and sacrifices inspired the uprisings that rocked Saleh’s regime over the spring and summer, fear their goals and accomplishments will be diluted by the JMP. This is embodied in their explicit hostility to the GCC’s amnesty for Saleh “and all those who worked with him,” from corrupt officials to security services that cracked down violently on demonstrations in Sanaa and other key cities. It is no surprise, then, that protest groups threaten to boycott the February election.

In addition, the political opposition is divided. Partly this is due to the coalition’s regional and ideological fissures, split among tribal GPC turncoats, urban democrats, northern Islamists, southern socialists and others. These centrifugal forces accelerated as violence trended upward across the country. More fundamentally, the JMP opposition (and Yemeni civil society broadly) has been weakened by Saleh, who used the ruling party as a spoils system. He habitually bought off parliamentary opponents and created well-funded mirror organizations (istinsakh, or “cloning”) to compete with JMP parties. Saleh’s patronage pipeline is ebbing amid nationwide chaos, and the GPC-led regime is losing its grip on developments in the street. But under the GCC plan, it retains the main levers of power in its negotiations with an even more fractured partner.

Finally, the GCC plan does not account for Yemen’s new military balance. It calls on the transitional government to remove all armed elements from the cities as a prelude to the February election. It also suggests “restructuring and reengineering” the armed forces during the constitutional reform process.