The Middle East Channel

Consolidating uncertainty in Yemen

Yemen’s joint Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman might serve well as a poster child of the Arab Spring, but the outcome of the Yemeni transition does not make a good model — if there is one at all. Events throughout 2012 certainly did not fulfill the expectations of the revolutionary youth who have consistently ...


Yemen’s joint Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman might serve well as a poster child of the Arab Spring, but the outcome of the Yemeni transition does not make a good model — if there is one at all. Events throughout 2012 certainly did not fulfill the expectations of the revolutionary youth who have consistently returned to the streets of Sanaa, Taizz, and Aden. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has continued to exert some influence in Yemeni politics: as head of the former regime party General People’s Congress (GPC); through his connections in the military and bureaucratic apparatus; by maintaining healthy ties in the main tribal confederation, the Hashid, that has dominated Yemeni politics since the 1970s; and in being propped up by Saudi support. Yet, with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Saleh-rival Ali Mohsen increasingly consolidating their position, the end game might just have begun for the Saleh connection. As stated by Saleh, politics in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes. With Saleh out of office, his former vice president on the verge of consolidating his grip on the presidency, and military strongmen as power brokers in a volatile security framework, the lead dancer is gone, but the snakes are still there. 

In January, I visited Yemen’s capital Sanaa for a three-week research mission to learn more about the role of the Yemeni military in politics and current security sector reforms. Somewhat inculcated with media reports about rebellions in the North and South, persistent kidnappings and assassinations, along with occasional armed struggle between factions of the regime, I was surprised with the measure of normalcy that had returned to the capital — and perhaps also with the only limited signs of destruction in a city that has witnessed two major army units lock their horns since the summer of 2011. While Yemen seems to contain all the ingredients for a failed-state recipe, inclusive dialogue among political forces is as much a feature of the post-Saleh transition as violent conflict. The establishment of a military committee in January 2012 has been supported by U.S. and Jordanian advisors. The initiative promised to bring the two sides to the negotiating table and to restructure the Yemeni armed forces. When I interviewed the committee’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Ali Saeed Obeid, he claimed that the committee’s mission was almost accomplished. However, he certainly underestimated the major reform challenges still to be addressed in the restructuring of the domestic security establishment and the military. Yet, a fragile truce of sorts has been sustained on the streets of the country’s major cities, where political conflict turned openly violent in 2011 between the camps of the former president and his rival Ali Mohsen, allied with the Islamist-tribal Islah Party. In Sanaa the regular police forces are still largely absent. Several militias man road-blocks and patrol the streets of the capital to pitch their territory, but their presence also allows a measure of security to return to the capital. In early February the military made a concerted effort, under the command of the general chief-of-staff, to engage with al Qaeda militants in al-Bayda, including units of the regular army and the Special Forces (al-Qawwat al-Khassa), which had long been loyal to former president Saleh. Irrespective of the success of this particular military operation, it might indeed indicate a more unified stance of the armed forces. That military units previously under the command of the ousted president now act upon the orders of the new political leadership is certainly bad news for the al Qaeda uprising in the South.

On the political front, a Technical Committee recruited among representatives of Yemeni civil society came up with a 20-point plan that identified the rift between the North, whose tribal elites have dominated politics since the 1994 civil war, and the South as the single most pressing issue on the political agenda. Moreover, a November 2011 peace agreement encouraged the establishment of a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that was composed of all major political and societal forces, including the GPC (112 seats) and opposition parties, most importantly the Islah Party (50), the Yemeni Socialist Party (37), and the Nasserist Party (30). Quite remarkably, the NDC also comprises representatives of the secessionist movement in the South (Hirak, 85 seats) and the Houthi’s in the North (35), in addition to representatives from youth (40), women (40), and civil society organizations (40).

Internal negotiations took an agonizingly long time before the NDC was announced in late November 2012. It was accomplished only upon substantial pressure from the U.N. Special Advisor to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, who had to overcome a protracted turf battle between the GPC and the major opposition coalition in the Joint Meeting Parties. While the NDC and the Technical Committee’s recommendations are yet to yield any positive results, one aspect is quite noteworthy: the degree of inclusiveness of participation in both venues of negotiations reflects an understanding of the complexities of Yemeni power politics. In its inclusive approach toward negotiating the political transition, the NDC has invited repeated protests by the revolutionary youth who have continued to demand the exclusion of Saleh and his associates from the political scene. While this might indeed happen very soon, due to the recent weakening of the Saleh camp, the National Dialogue is a signature for Yemen-style Realpolitik that distinguishes itself considerably from other Arab Spring countries where revolutionary discourse paired with increasing levels of violence led to intractable stand-offs and the complete discrediting of the ancien regime’s "remnants" (feloul), ignoring that they were still there as a political power to be recognized. While it may be premature to praise these efforts at reconciliation and dialogue, Yemenis may have understood that political complexity triggers either compromise or disaster — a lesson yet to be learned in Syria, Egypt, and possibly Tunisia.

Apart from balancing negotiations, Hadi has taken steps to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the Saleh connection. Under the guise of military restructuring and security sector reforms, Hadi — former vice-president and token representative of the neglected Southern governorates — has been conspicuously unwilling (or incapable) to engineer structural reforms. Restructuring and reform, in Hadi’s view, has meant primarily the replacement of the top brass in the government, the bureaucracy, and the security services in order to consolidate his position and curb the influence of potential rivals. By early 2013, he had been somewhat successful, changing almost the entire leadership in the military and security apparatus. He has dealt a significant blow to the Saleh connection and built up his own power base, in a fragile alliance with the Islah Party and Ali Mohsen.

The new minister of defense, Mohammed Nasr Ahmed, is from Hadi’s Abyan governorate and is a close ally and friend of the president. That the minister has been targeted in numerous assassination attempts speaks for the significance of his appointment. The minister of interior, Abdel Qader al-Qahtan, is from the Islah Party. In addition to several governors and regional military commanders, the former president’s half-brother Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar was sacked as commander of the air force and left his post only after a 19-day stand-off with Hadi in April 2012. Through a presidential decree on December 19, Hadi dissolved the Republican Guard (Haras al-Jumhuriya), the most potent army unit in the country under the command of the former president’s son Ahmed Ali Saleh. The Central Security Forces (al-Amn al-Markasi), the political police including an anti-terrorist unit, had been under the command of the former president’s nephew Yahya Saleh, who was succeeded by the chief of security in Taizz, Abed Rabbo Ahmed al-Maqdashi.

The National Security Bureau (al-Amn al-Qawmi) is a U.S.-sponsored, well-equipped intelligence agency, founded in 2002 and led by former Saleh-man Ali al-Anisi and Saleh’s nephew Amar. The Bureau’s new head is Ali al-Ahmadi, an economist from the Shabwa governorate in the South. Hadi also replaced the former commander of the Special Forces (al-Qawwat al-Khassa) Ahmed Dahhan, a Saleh-loyalist from his Sanhan tribe, with Ali Qushaibi who is believed to be affiliated with Ali Mohsen. The Emergency Police (Shurta al-Najda), a special unit tasked with the protection of government buildings and foreign embassies, saw Saleh-loyalist Mohammed al-Qawsi replaced by Husayn al-Ghadi. The former head of the Military Intelligence (al-Istikhbar al-Askari) Mujahed Roshaym, from the Northern al-Jawf governorate, was replaced with Ahmed al-Yafa’i. The Presidential Guard (al-Haras al-Riasi) was dissolved due to uncertain loyalties of its officers and rank-and-file soldiers. There is now a new Presidential Security Unit (al-Wahda al-Harasa al-Riasiya), recruited mainly among people from Hadi’s Abyan governorate.

Whether Hadi’s restructuring efforts will be ultimately successful is impossible to predict and will heavily depend on the relations with his current allies: his own people in the GPC, the Ali Mohsen camp, and the Islah Party. There is a chance that, once the common political rival Ali Abdullah Saleh is finally sidelined, this fragile coalition may break up and slip into open rivalry. It also remains to be seen whether the bureaucratic apparatus and the security establishment — still consisting in large part of personnel recruited under Saleh — will be deeply impressed by leadership changes at the top of their organizations. These apparatuses have always suffered from a notorious lack of corporate loyalty, institutionalized chain-of-command, and internal cohesion. While Yemen’s future remains uncertain, however, a consolidation of sorts has taken place throughout the past year that included an implicit agreement to negotiate, a new president’s advent in politics, and an ousted ruler’s unpromising future.

Holger Albrecht is assistant professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo and Jennings Randolph senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. His research was sponsored in part by a grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science.

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