Yemen after Saleh: between uncertainties and divisions

After nearly nine months of protests, more than 900 deaths and approximately 25,000 wounded, the President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh has transferred power to his deputy, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
Maria Serra
6 February 2012

After nearly nine months of protests, more than 900 deaths and approximately 25,000 wounded, the President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh has on November 23 in Riyadh signed an agreement for the transfer of power to his deputy, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi. The agreement, which has been mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council and supported by the United States and United Nations who have expressed their support for a rapid solution of the crisis through Resolution 2014 of October 21, provides the complete immunity for him and for his family approved by the Yemeni Parliament just last January 21 (while his staff, after some amendments, have been granted an amnesty limited to political cases). Nevertheless the interim government of Hadi – Secretary General of the ruling party (the General People's Congress, GPC) and Saleh’s substitute after the attack on June 3 and Premier Mohamed Basindawa, former Minister of Foreign Affairs during the years following the unification of Yemen  - both acceptable compromise figures for the opposition parties - do not appear to herald a break with the past and the beginning of a process of appeasement and democratization.

Indeed, although the caretaker government also contains elements belonging to the opposition, some weak points of the agreement drawn up in Saudi Arabia regarding the deep divisions within Yemeni society indicate not only the attempt by the Republican faction to maintain strong control over the country, but also that the initial protests of Yemeni citizens against their autocratic leadership have been gradually transmuted into a military conflict between the state and the tribal confederations, plunging Yemen into a more acute domestic crisis, with obvious repercussions at regional level.

First, to grant a total immunity plus honorary presidency to Saleh has reignited a spate of more forceful protests and clashes in Sana'a. Secondly, the agreement drawn up by the Gulf monarchies did not take into account significant reform of the army, which is still headed by Saleh’s family members: from his son Ahmed Alì, Head of the Presidential Guard – the main instrument of repressions during last spring – to his nephews Yahya, Tariq and Ammar, respectively Director of the Counterterrorism Unit, Head of Special Forces and Deputy Director of the National Security Bureau. This maintenance of the status quo is unacceptable not only for the young protesters gathered in the Independent Youth Movements but also for the opposition and above all for al-Islah, the Islamist party headed by Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar’s family, the erstwhile head of the Hashid tribal federation ( an affiliation he shares with Saleh). Indeed, the main members of this faction – particularly Hymyar, Hussein and Hamid al-Ahmar – had already resigned from the ruling coalition together with some figures from diplomacy and government circles, officially with the aim of supporting the young protesters (providing aid through Sabafon and Suhai TV, the mobile and broadcasting companies). Their real aim, which was hardly a secret, was to overthrow Saleh’s power.

The breaking point was finally reached, however, in early March when General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Commander of the First Armored Division (Yemeni elite army group), began, with the support of other army units and other tribes – including the Baqil – a real war against presidential forces especially in the northern districts of the capital. This background history indicates why in this moment of transition it is important to understand the complex significance of al-Islah’s behaviour both towards Saleh’s family and towards those opposition parties represented by the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), to which the al-Ahmar family at least so far (at least as long as the balance of tribal interests won't change) has given their support.

With respect to the opposition, we should also note that the plan arranged by the Gulf Cooperation Council was signed only by the GPC and JMP, therefore excluding the Zaydi rebels in the North – linked to Houti tribes, Shiites, accused of being financed and armed by Iran and involved in the early days of January in several clashes with the Sunni Salafi faithful to republican forces in the northern province of Saada and Hajja – and the secessionist movement of the South.

The Yemeni crisis is not only bound up in the deep internal divisions that national unification in 1990 failed to settle, but exacerbated by factors that found a fertile ground thanks to the weakening wider context, beginning with the al-Qaeda network. In particular the full control of the southern regions (not only the provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, but also some important districts of the region of al-Bayda - including the capital Radda – close to Sana'a) by al-Qaeda and jihadist groups, united under the generic name of “Ansar al-Sharia”, suggests that the death inflicted last September of Imam Anwar al-Awlaki by American security forces no more than scratched the surface of the terrorist structures in Yemen, which if anything have since been strengthened by the ongoing political crisis in Sana'a.

For all these reasons we can understand why the monarchies of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, have every interest in ensuring Saleh's 'controlled exit' from the political scene and in making sure that Yemen does not enter a dangerous power vacuum. In the light of this, as announced by the new Minister of Foreign Affairs and member of GPC, Abubakr al-Qiribi, the presidential elections scheduled for next February 21, for which Hadi is the sole candidate (moreover ranked as Chief Marshal), could be postponed - not only for safety reasons but also to allow a necessary political compromise to take place between the clans which is satisfactory for the Saudis, who are committed both to avoiding possible consequences at the domestic level, while they also wish to contain the Iranian threat arising from another important geopolitical contest which is taking place in the other corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

Whatever the election result, the first crucial challenges that future politicians will have to face include the restructuring of the Yemeni army – for which a special Committee has been convened – and constitutional reform. However, given the limited powers of the Premier Basindawa – whose relations with Hamid al-Hamar in particular might be a further breaking point with Saleh’s clan – compared to those of the President, it is unlikely that the current presidential system can be transformed into a viable parliament.

In the meantime, the prospects for Yemen, more and more under pressure from the economic point of view, are bleak. Attacks on oil pipelines that connect the central province of Ma’rib to the western coasts of Hudaydah and to southern coast of Shabwa and Abyan are increasingly frequent. A season of harder and harder clashes seems to lie ahead, with the concrete risk of Yemen becoming a failed state alongside its neighbour, Somalia.

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