What Next For Yemen?

November 23, 2011 marked a breakthrough for Yemen when President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the GCC deal in Riyadh.  That date represents the output of 10 exhausting months of negotiations.  Both the agreement and the accompanying implementation mechanism represent a compromise, although both have come very close to being derailed.  The power-sharing arrangement benefits the main parties, but – as the continuing violence seems to indicate – not so the youth and others who feel unrepresented in the new administration.  Amnesty – a major bone of contention – has been agreed in exchange for Saleh’s formal resignation before presidential “elections” on February 21.  It appears that anyone who worked for Saleh politically is eligible.  Are those who attempted to assassinate Saleh immune too?  If not, why not?  Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa will continue to wrestle with these challenges as he leads a “consensus” government over the next 2 years.  But what next for Yemen? 

Much is expected from the implementation mechanism.  The national dialogue conference, which is not planned until after the presidential election, must involve groups so far left out, including the youth, Houthis and southern secessionists.  The Committee on Military Affairs needs to start restructuring the army in order to re-build the broken social contract with the people.  The security sector needs to be stripped from under Saleh-family control.  But Saleh does not appear to have plans to stay away from Yemen.  His permanent exit was not part of the agreement.   He seems to rather like the idea of letting someone else take the heat of leadership while he runs things through the General People’s Congress (GPC) from behind the scenes having gained his immunity.  Many also question the credibility of what will amount to a presidential “transfer” of power on February 21 when it is supported by a fragmented army that in the very recent past took life to preserve Saleh’s regime.

Looking forward, where does Yemen go from here? We paint three potential scenarios. 

The first is the most optimistic.  It is a peaceful transition whereby Saleh resigns on schedule and exits Yemen with his immediate family.  Control of security forces passes to civilian authority, thus assuring transparency and accountability during an externally monitored presidential transfer of power on February 21.  Some youth inevitably remain angry because of the amnesty but violence gradually ebbs.  Voter turnout is acceptable, even if mainly from the south.  The broken relationship between the people and the army starts to be addressed as plans for restructuring the army unfold.  The youth achieve some representation within the consensus government as they join into a united front and people generally look forward to participating in the writing of a new constitution, the national dialogue conference, and a presidential election in 2014.  Both external funding and internal influence of Saleh’s old regime cease.  The new Yemen moves forward as it starts to address more long-term destabilizing factors

Scenario two describes fragmentation: Saleh returns to Yemen from his medical stay and maintains a strategy of divide and rule.  He plays on the division between parties and drives his agenda through the old guard in the GPC.  He is hard to stop because of his legacy and also because members of his family still control the security forces.   Protesters continue to die on the streets.  Major General Ali Mohsen stays put.  The provinces begin to reject the central government as violence reignites.  The Houthis extend their influence eastward, routinely clashing with Salafi forces.  The Saudis strike as and when the Houthis irritate.  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) largely does what it wants and continues to pose a direct threat to the U.S. and stability in Yemen.   Saleh claims the country needs him back and causes significant upheaval as he attempts to rise from the ashes.  Suffering increases exponentially as the UN declares Yemen a humanitarian crisis.  

Worse still is scenario three, whereby someone, maybe Ali Mohsen or Ahmed Ali, violently seizes power. The outcome is a bloodier version of scenario two; maybe country-wide civil war but certainly more “dancing on the heads of snakes” and crony dictatorship.

To help keep Yemen on path one, we need effective internal Yemeni leadership now.  The voice of the people must be heard.  New leaders are emerging in the process.  What role can, should and will Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkul Karman play moving forward? Much is also expected from Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Basindwa.  Both southerners, they must courageously act now in the interest of the entire Yemeni people.

Now is also the time for the international community to act boldly in support of Yemen’s transition.  Getting it right will require every ounce of effort for a sustained period.  It will require investment in Yemen beyond Saleh’s ever-blinking terrorism beacon.  Infringements of the GCC deal must be called out immediately.  External U.S. and U.N. leadership must monitor progress, escalate measures if need be, and intervene only as a last resort.  Saleh’s financial assets must be seized and his travel permissions curbed if he does not follow the terms of the deal.  The GCC must leverage its influence.  Saleh must be encouraged to leave with his family.  Otherwise Yemen may begin“Revolution 2.0,” as we have seen in Egypt, and the 1,800 Yemenis who have given their lives since protests began will have sacrificed in vain. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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