"Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition", crisisgroup

Middle East Report N°125 3 Jul 2012

Executive Summary

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البيان الإعلامي بالعربية


As messy as it has been and unfinished as it remains, Yemen’s transition accomplished two critical goals: avoiding a potentially devastating civil war and securing the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the impoverished country for over three decades. It also cracked the regime’s foundations, while making it possible to imagine new rules of the game. Still, much remains in doubt, notably the scope and direction of change. The nation essentially has witnessed a political game of musical chairs, one elite faction swapping places with the other but remaining at loggerheads. Important constituencies – northern Huthi, southern Hiraak, some independent youth movements – feel excluded and view the transition agreement with scepticism, if not distain. Al-Qaeda and other militants are taking advantage of a security vacuum. Socio-economic needs remain unmet. The new government must rapidly show tangible progress (security, economic, political) to contain centrifugal forces pulling Yemen apart, while reaching out to stakeholders and preparing the political environment for inclusive national dialogue.

On 23 November 2011, following eleven months of popular protest, Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative and an accompanying set of implementation mechanisms. Boiled down to its essentials, the GCC initiative provided the former president domestic immunity from prosecution in return for his stepping down. The UN-backed implementation document added flesh to the bones, providing valuable details on the mechanics and timetable of the transition roadmap.

The agreement outlined a two-phase process. In the first, Saleh delegated powers to his vice president, Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi. Feuding politicians then formed an opposition-led national consensus government with cabinet portfolios split equally between the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). The president established a military committee tasked with reducing tensions and divisions within the armed forces, which had split between pro- and anti-Saleh factions during the uprising. Phase one ended with early presidential elections, on 21 February 2012, in which Hadi was the uncontested, consensus candidate.

In phase two, Hadi and the government are given two years to, among other things, restructure the military-secu­rity apparatus, address issues of transitional justice and launch an inclusive National Dialogue Conference with the goal of revising the constitution before new elections in February 2014. It is a laudatory program, but also plainly an ambitious one. Already the scorecard is mixed, as implementation has fallen short.

Indeed, although much has changed, a considerable amount remains the same. Begin with the most important: the settlement failed to resolve the highly personalised conflict between Saleh and his family on the one hand, and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, as well as, the powerful al-Ahmar family, on the other. As both camps seek to protect their interests and undermine their rivals, the contours of their struggle have changed but not its fundamental nature or the identity of its protagonists. Likewise, the underlying political economy of corruption has remained virtually untouched. The same families retain control of most of the country’s resources while relying on patronage networks and dominating decision-making in the government, military and political parties.

For frustrated independent activists, the struggle at the top amounts to little more than a political see-saw between two camps that have dominated the country for some 33 years, a reshuffling of the political deck that has, at the party level, hurt the GPC and helped the JMP. This has serious policy implications. As politicians squabble in Sanaa, urgent national problems await. Humanitarian conditions have worsened dramatically since the uprising, with hunger and malnutrition levels growing at an alarming rate. A year of political turmoil has resulted in severe shortages of basic commodities; aggravated already high poverty and unemployment rates; and brought economic activity to a virtual halt.

The army is still divided, with warring commanders escaping the president’s full authority. Armed factions and tribal groups loyal to Saleh, Ali Mohsen or the Al-Ahmars remain in the capital; elsewhere the situation is far worse. The government’s writ over the periphery, already tenuous before the uprising, has contracted sharply since. In the North, the Huthis have vastly expanded their territorial control. In the South, the government must contend with challenges from the Hiraak and its affiliated armed groups. Most worrisome is the spread of Ansar Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), a murky mix of al-Qaeda militants and young local recruits, many of whom appear motivated by economic rewards more than by ideological conviction. The government, fighting alongside local popular committees, has recaptured territories in the South, but the battle with al-Qaeda is far from over.

Yet, despite these multiple crises, partisan politics and jockeying for the most part persists in the capital. Encumbered by infighting and lacking capacity, the new government has yet to articulate or put forward a political and economic vision for the transitional period. What is more, it has done too little to bring in long-marginalised groups and is sticking to a largely Sanaa-centric approach. Reformers are concerned that vested interests in both the GPC and JMP are seeking to maintain a highly centralised, corrupt state that favours northern tribal and Islamist leaders, thus further deepening the divide with the rest of the country.

Securing Saleh’s peaceful exit from the presidency was hard enough; implementing the remainder of the agreement will be harder still. Neutralising potential spoilers – competing elites associated with the old regime as well as the divided military/security apparatus – is a priority. This cannot be done too abruptly or in a way that privileges one side over the other, lest it trigger violent resistance from the losing side. Instead, Hadi should gradually remove or rotate powerful commanders in a politically even-handed fashion and end their control over individual army units, while forcing them to demonstrate respect for the military chain of command under the president and defence minister. In like manner, the influence of powerful political parties and interest groups should be diluted in a way that ensures no single one finds itself in a position to dominate the transitional process. Equally important, the national dialogue needs to be broadly inclusive, requiring immediate confidence-building measures and continued outreach efforts toward sidelined groups: the youth, the Huthis and the Hiraak.

Implementation also is suffering from its overall opaqueness. No one – not the government, parliament, or military committee – has publicly kept score so as to shed light on who is violating the agreement and how. Nor has Hadi formed the interpretation committee, even though it is mandated by the agreement, and even though it could usefully settle disputes over the meaning of the initiative and its implementation mechanisms.

The political settlement has numerous flaws. It was an elite compromise that excluded many original protesters as well as marginalised constituencies. It failed to adequately address issues of justice, and it kept in power leaders and parties at least partially responsible for the country’s woes. But, at a minimum, it offers the chance for a different future. If politicians in Sanaa fail to resolve, or at least contain, the ongoing elite confrontation and move forward with an inclusive dialogue, the country risks experiencing further violence and fragmentation. Yemen has long run away from critical decisions. It should run no more.


To the Yemeni Armed Forces:

1.  Respect and fully implement President Hadi’s and the defence minister’s orders, notably regarding military rotations, retirements and appointments, and return all military forces to their barracks as specified by the agreement and by the military committee, unless ordered otherwise by the defence minister.

To Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the al-Ahmar family and allies in Islah:

2.  Remove all militias from urban areas as well as troops from areas surrounding protest squares as mandated by the initiative and by order of the military council.

In order to improve the political situation

To the Yemeni Government:

3.  Ensure that existing laws, especially the civil service law, are rigorously implemented during the transitional period.

4.  Maintain distance during the transitional period from divisive political figures such as former President Saleh, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Hamid al-Ahmar.

To all Signatories and Supporters of the GCC Initiative and the Implementation Mechanism:

5.  Implement the agreement and notably the national dialogue without preconditions and halt inflammatory press statements targeting political adversaries.

To President Hadi:

6.  Establish and empower immediately the interpretation committee as mandated by the agreement.

7.  Avoid to the extent possible regionally-based appointments and communicate transparently with relevant stakeholders and the public on issues pertaining to major civilian and military rotations, forced retirements and appointments.

To the General People’s Congress Party (GPC):

8.  Renovate the party, notably by

a) organising internal elections for a new leadership; and

b) reaching out to youth activists and empowering them within its decision-making apparatus.

To the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP):

9.  Minimise the role of divisive figures such as Hamid al-Ahmar and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar during the transitional period.

10.  In the case of Islah, hold internal elections to renew party leadership, allow new voices to be heard and intensify outreach to other coalition members to ensure broad and adequate consultation on decisions related to the transitional process and notably the national dialogue.

To President Saleh and his family:

11.  Respect and honour Hadi’s orders and presidential authority fully.

12.  Allow GPC internal reform by encouraging Hadi to head the party and acquiescing in Saleh moving to an advisory role.

13.  Support the spirit of the initiative by disengaging from politics and assuming a less prominent role during the transitional period.

To Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Hamid al-Ahmar:

14.  Support the spirit of the initiative and encourage reconciliation by playing a less prominent role in the transitional period and, in the case of Ali Mohsen, reaffirming unconditional commitment to retire from the military by doing so when Hadi sees fit.

In order to ensure inclusion of marginalised groups

To the Government of Yemen:

15.  Carry out confidence-building measures immediately to ensure meaningful participation in the national dialogue of independent youth groups, Huthis and the Hiraak, possibly to include, inter alia:

a) publicly apologising for injustices committed against the Huthis and the Hiraak;

b) releasing all political prisoners;

c) increasing humanitarian assistance and access to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the North and in the Abyan and Aden governorates;

d) establishing and empowering a land dispute committee and/or employment committee in the South to investigate and mediate longstanding grievances; and

e) addressing issues of transitional justice and national reconciliation by investigating acts of violence related to the 2011 uprising and compensating victims, while assuring citizens that these issues will be further debated and discussed during the national dialogue.

To non-signatories who reject the initiative including some independent youth groups,
the Huthis and the Hiraak:

16.  Participate in the preparatory stage of the national dialogue by communicating with and eventually taking part in relevant government-established committees.

17.  Refrain from placing preconditions on the national dialogue and instead present realistic requests aimed at improving the political environment;

In order to maximise international support for Yemen’s transition

To international actors supportive of the GCC Initiative and Implementation Mechanisms (including the UN Special Envoy, Security Council, EU, GCC, IMF, and World Bank, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey and Japan):

18.  Continue to support the Yemeni government’s efforts to implement the agreement with technical, diplomatic and financial assistance and ensure the UN maintains a leading role in facilitating national dialogue.

19.  Avoid the reality or appearance of taking sides in local political disputes, notably by:

a) expressing willingness to talk to all parties;

b) identifying and criticising openly any signatory that fails to honour the agreement; and

c) promoting local oversight of implementation by pressing for establishment of the interpretation committee and encouraging civil society and youth organisations to assume an oversight role.

To the Government of Iran:

20.  Support the UN-sponsored national dialogue to resolve longstanding political challenges in Sadaa and the South and encourage the Huthis and the Hiraak to participate.

Sanaa/Brussels, 3 July 2012