Yemen’s transition: a model to be followed?

What is actually happening in Yemen?  It is either presented as a ‘solution’ which could be a model for Syria, or as a ‘phoney’ change that only conceals continuation of the previous regime

Helen Lackner
19 June 2012

In the current environment where the success of the ‘Arab revolutions’ to bring about genuine democracy to their countries is more than doubtful, there is value in examining in some detail the situation in Yemen.  Where Egypt seems to be poised between a military or a fundamentalist regime, Libya is at risk of being divided between a multiplicity of various armed factions,  Bahrain continues on its bloody confrontation between a minority regime and the demands of the majority of its people, early hopes for Tunisia are dwindling in the face of more aggressive fundamentalists and Syria is suffering civil war with a death toll of hundreds each weak, what is actually happening in Yemen?  It is either presented as a ‘solution’ which could be a model for Syria, or as a merely cosmetic change which conceals a continuation of the previous regime.

After many months of procrastination, Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to sign the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council Transitional agreement on 23 November 2011.  While he attempted to continue ruling from behind the scenes, his power has been very dramatically reduced over the months.  First, his former Vice President, Abdul Rabbo Mansour Hadi was elected president through an overwhelming popular endorsement on 25 February 2012 when more people came out to vote for him than had participated in the previously ‘contested’ presidential elections of 1999 and 2006.  While the outcome was in no doubt as he was the only candidate, the fact that over 6 million Yemenis bothered to come out and queue to vote showed their desire for change and to get rid of the old regime - even if many of them were voting more against AAS than for ARMH - gave him a popular legitimacy which helps him develop a genuine power base which he previously lacked. 

Since his election, the new President has demonstrated his skill at political manoeuvring as well as his ability to address the most pressing and important issues in the country.  He is gradually strengthening his position with the population at large through a number of actions, including encouraging the popular ‘change square’ movements to continue their activities and participation in political dialogue.  Most significantly he has started addressing the military-security situation through a two-pronged approach: first he has gradually sidelined some of the most ‘obstructionist’[1]  military and security leaders, and replaced them with men loyal to himself.  Secondly, thanks to the new military leadership which is seriously committed to putting an end to the fundamentalist insurrection, the rebels have been dislodged from their stronghold in Abyan Governorate, pushing them back into Shabwa which was their main base for a number of years.  Immediately after this achievement last week, moves have started in Shabwa and already some of their strongholds are falling, thanks to the establishment of local ‘popular committees’ who are ‘encouraging’ them to leave.

The Government of National Unity which was established after the signature of the GCC agreement is composed of members of all the major forces present in Yemen, with the exception of the southern separatists who, by definition, refuse to participate in a Sana’a based entity.  Despite being led by a Prime Minister who should be living in restful retirement due to his age and health, this government is addressing issues of personnel and management in the various ministries, and has prepared a ‘Transitional Program for Stabilization and Development 2012-14’ for which it hopes to obtain funding during the forthcoming pledging meeting in Riyadh on 27 June, to be attended by the country’s main international bilateral and multilateral partners. 

National dialogue has a chance 

A Committee to prepare the National Dialogue is working to ensure that this dialogue is as inclusive as possible and attempting to ensure that the most fractious elements in the country, namely the Huthi movement in the north and the various southern movements, participate.  It is composed of a group of deeply committed and respected people from different political tendencies and is therefore the best bet to ensure comprehensive representation at the conference and thus its long term significance and success.  This despite the fact that the international community’s support for this dialogue has been delegated to Russia, which is hardly the best model for the development of a genuinely democratic process, let alone a Constitution favouring the interests of the majority of the population. 

While this is hardly a positive comment about the international community’s role in Yemen, China as lead advisor for the Human Rights Committee is even more laughable, or alternatively, likely to reduce one to tears. Otherwise, however reluctantly, it has to be recognised that international involvement in Yemen is playing a positive role at the moment: the threat of personal sanctions by the UNSC against AAS and his relatives was a major contributing factor in persuading him to sign the GCC agreement and the same pressure has seriously contributed to persuading some his more ‘obstructionist’ associates to bow to the inevitable and accept their removal from senior military positions in recent months.   

Most of the international community’s pressure is focused on the fight against fundamentalist terrorists. The UN special representative and the ambassadors present in Sana’a are helping to strengthen the new president’s position, and will hopefully also ensure significant international  support and financing for the forthcoming donor conference of 27 June.  While Saudi Arabia itself has already pledged USD 3.25 billion and others a further USD 0.75 billion during the Friends of Yemen meeting on 23 May this year, far more is needed to enable the new regime to address the basic humanitarian and development needs of the country and show the population that, at last, their interests are given priority.  In addition considerable funds are needed to finance the various security and military costs of re-establishing its control throughout its territory. 

Willingness to provide financial support for development and humanitarian needs will be the test of the international community’s real commitment to Yemen’s transition to democracy, whether the GCC states or the rest of the world.  For Yemen to emerge from its current economic doldrums, it will also be essential for the regime to assert itself economically: unless it rejects the ‘Washington consensus’ policies which have been forced on the country in past decades, the long-term impact of any financial assistance will create a new elite to replace the old one, concentrating wealth in the hands of the few, rather than addressing the needs of the majority. 

What economic base?

Yemen’s economy, at the best of times a fundamental problem with no easy solutions, is in a state of almost complete collapse.  Shortage of ground water and extraction rates way above replenishment mean that the expansion of irrigated agriculture is precluded, oil reserves have dropped dramatically and could at best produce 200 000 b/d though since 2011 the pipelines are regularly and frequently sabotaged, preventing any transport. Gas exports income will not replace the income from diminishing oil supplies in the short or long run.  Electricity supply has been occasional at best for the past year in Sana’a and some other cities (though of course that is a lot better than in the vast majority of rural areas which have none at all).  The last year has seen reduced activity in all sectors and a rise in unemployment estimated by the Ministry of Planning at over 50% last August.  The thousands of rural families dependent on the casual labour of their young men in the cities in construction or services have lost this source of income as, in the absence of work opportunities, these young people have either come home or joined the popular movements; either way their income has ceased.  Social security payments and charitable support to the poor barely exist, and the majority of the population have sunk to levels of poverty which led the WFP[2] to assess that 10 million Yemenis are now food insecure with over half of the rural population suffering from food insecurity, and half of the country’s children suffering from malnutrition.   By 2011, 56% of the country’s households had insufficient food. 

One of the many litmus tests for change is to be found in Yemeni Television.  While its news bulletins used to be nothing but rather tiresome and monotonous accounts of meetings with notables where issues of mutual interest were discussed and agreed upon, there are now serious political debates, news bulletins are actually informative of the real situation in the country and address real issues.  While there is also more freedom in the written press and there have been no arrests of journalists or prosecutions since the new president came to power, this is far less relevant given a) the high level of illiteracy in the country and b) the completely inadequate distribution mechanisms for the press.

Well, how does it look? 

It is clear that Abdul Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s Yemen is clearly not ‘business as usual’ for Ali Abdullah Saleh and his cronies, and the changes brought about by the GCC deal are far more than cosmetic.   The battle is not won: the assassination of the main architect of the recent defeats of Islamic rebels only shows how fragile things are.  However recent developments show the possibility of a truly changed regime in Yemen, should the coming months continue in the same spirit as the last three: 

-       Steps have been taken to transform the military and security forces; while many of the former president’s associates have been removed, some are still there and the fundamental restructuring of the forces remains to be achieved 

-       The government of national unity is inclusive and tackling the most urgent issues during the transitional period  

-       Steps for the preparation of the National Dialogue are focusing on ensuring it is inclusive not only of the formal existing forces but also of representatives of the ‘change squares’ including women, giving hope that the new constitution will not be dominated by Islamists 

-       Major progress has been made in restoring state control over Abyan (and soon Shabwa) governorates, very considerably reducing the threat presented by the armed Islamists

-       The role of the ‘international community’ is currently positive, given that it is enabling the new regime to weaken and eventually get rid of the leadership of the previous regime at all levels. 

This is a good record, particularly by comparison with the state of the Arab Revolutions elsewhere in the region.  This does not mean that the future of Yemen is bright.  There are plenty of challenges ahead: 

-       The fundamental problems of inadequate natural resources and mismanagement of existing ones, particularly water, remain 

-       Insecurity is still a major challenge on a daily basis throughout the country, with no effective police force operating either in cities or the rural areas.  Changing this will take time.  More assassinations of reforming leaders can be expected. 

-       The National dialogue might fail to produce a constitution representative of the interests of the population at large, in particular it may fail to provide the means for the majority of rural people to be truly and adequately represented in politics, other than through their tribal leadership.

-       The struggle between the former leadership and its rivals remains an underlying factor and might explode, at the expense of the interests and security of the majority of the population; this could take the form of a struggle between the Islah fundamentalist party and others or a struggle over the restructuring of military and security forces which remains to be done 

-       Both the Huthis movement in the North and even more so the Southern Separatist Movement have the potential to bring about the disintegration of the Yemeni state 

-       Insufficient external financial support may lead to continuing and worsening disaffection of the majority of the population, particularly in rural but also in urban areas.  This could lead to renewed support for the fundamentalist terrorists 

-       The international community’s role might soon be seen as negative interference if one or more of the following occur: drone strikes kill civilians in rural areas, financial aid privileges the few at the expense of the many, divisive economic policies are forced upon the regime

-       The state’s inability to address the humanitarian and development situation would alienate the population 

Although the GCC supported transitional regime has not turned Yemen into a revolutionary state, by comparison with what is happening elsewhere, the situation at the moment shows more positive signs than could have been expected: the forces of the uprisings are working to participate in the national dialogue, the transitional regime is working to weaken and remove most of the remnants of the previous era and is preparing for a new and hopefully more democratic future.


[1]  The Special Representative of the UNSC has formalised this term which conveniently describes the former president’s close relatives and other cronies, most of whom ensured his control over the country in the past decades.

[2]  WFP, Comprehensive Food Security Survey, 2012

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