The Difficulties of Moving Forward in Yemen

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.

Such a scenario may have been realistic in the spring, prior to major tribal and military defections, a brewing civil war in Sanaa and new offensives by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in the restive south. But it may be impossible in the wake of those developments. For key defectors—including General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the influential (unrelated) al-Ahmar clan—redeployment from Sanaa effectively means demobilization. Having rebelled, their influence in a post-Saleh Yemen will derive from their ability to protect antiregime demonstrators and command large numbers of guns pointed at the heart of the regime. Conversely, elite military units commanded by Saleh’s extended family have little incentive to relinquish their strategic positions protecting the regime’s bastions, let alone agree to larger reforms jeopardizing their privileged positions in the ranks. By reneging three times on the GCC deal, Saleh triggered enough mutinies that when he finally put pen to paper the writ of the agreement had been superseded by a low-level civil war his delays originally inflamed. This, in turn, emboldened preexisting insurgencies in the north and south, thereby further sharpening the regime’s reliance on military force to determine Yemen’s political future.

There is a final, broadly strategic, question: If the GCC plan can’t solve Yemen’s political quagmire, what will be its impact on the country’s future? Assuming Saleh abides by it, his signature may be the GCC plan’s most important achievement, regardless of any progress by the interim government. He may have feared international sanctions or perhaps the exile, imprisonment or death that befell the Arab Awakening’s other toppled leaders. Nonetheless, his resignation came in no small part from the belief that his family’s control of the security apparatus, and the GPC’s likely control of the future government, would ensure his immunity from prosecution. This continuity would be reinforced by the American concern with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has led Washington to support Saleh’s security services even as it calls for him to step down.

Indeed, his departure will not remedy Yemen’s profound security, political or economic ailments. It could open some breathing space for hard-fought political compromises Yemenis have reached for for generations, even if they are minimal and negotiated in trying circumstances. But the recent violence—anxious standoffs punctuated by brief skirmishes, sieges and pinprick strikes—belies a vast store of discontent, a potential energy that could bring forth much greater unrest.

Given the uncertainties of the GCC plan, Saleh’s abdication could generate kinetic conflict in the country. This would ensure continuity in a different, but distinctly Yemeni, form, highlighted in the Bipartisan Policy Center’s 2011 case study Fragility and Extremism in Yemen: Backed by a loyal military core, Saleh could play the country’s divided factions against each other and manipulate foreign powers’ fears of further chaos. That could allow him to retain power. Though more difficult now than ever, it has always been his driving goal.

Jonathan Ruhe is a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center and coauthor of the report Fragility and Extremism in Yemen (2011).

Image: Sallam