A difficult road ahead for Yemen’s political transition
On Nov. 23, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh belatedly fulfilled his pledge to sign the GCC initiative. His signing potentially opened space for a peaceful transfer of power and far-reaching reforms. Yet, such a positive outcome is far from guaranteed and will largely depend on how domestic and international actors tackle three interrelated challenges: 1) ...
On Nov. 23, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh belatedly fulfilled his pledge to sign the GCC initiative. His signing potentially opened space for a peaceful transfer of power and far-reaching reforms. Yet, such a positive outcome is far from guaranteed and will largely depend on how domestic and international actors tackle three interrelated challenges: 1) preventing political infighting and spoilers from derailing the accord's implementation; 2) demonstrating tangible progress by providing security and basic services to Yemeni citizens; and 3) addressing two key weaknesses of the initiative, political inclusiveness and transitional justice.
On Nov. 23, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh belatedly fulfilled his pledge to sign the GCC initiative. His signing potentially opened space for a peaceful transfer of power and far-reaching reforms. Yet, such a positive outcome is far from guaranteed and will largely depend on how domestic and international actors tackle three interrelated challenges: 1) preventing political infighting and spoilers from derailing the accord’s implementation; 2) demonstrating tangible progress by providing security and basic services to Yemeni citizens; and 3) addressing two key weaknesses of the initiative, political inclusiveness and transitional justice.
First proposed in April 2011, the GCC initiative outlined a "30-60 Transition Plan" whereby the president would transfer power to his vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, after one month in exchange for immunity from prosecution. An opposition-led coalition government would then hold presidential elections two months after the president’s resignation.
The agreement and accompanying implementation mechanisms signed on Nov. 23 retain this basic framework and timeline with important exceptions. The most notable among these is that Saleh will retain his position along with limited authorities until elections are held on Feb. 21, 2011. It also established a steering committee to oversee the restoration of security and the reintegration of military/security forces. Moreover, it greatly expanded on the original agreement by providing much needed clarification on questions of responsibility, sequencing, and oversight.
As currently defined, the transitional period is divided into two phases. The first lasts approximately three months, from the signing of the initiative until early elections on Feb. 21, 2011. During this time, the president delegates significant authority to Hadi, an opposition-led coalition government is established, and preparations are made for early presidential elections in which the vice president is the consensus candidate. Phase two begins after elections and consists of a two-year period devoted to national dialogue and constitutional reform.
All things considered, implementation is going relatively smoothly and political leaders are meeting key agreement benchmarks. Shortly following signature, the vice president issued a presidential decree calling for early elections. Then, on Dec. 10 , a national unity government was officially sworn in. The new government is headed by an opposition prime minister and ministerial portfolios are divided equally between the opposition and the president’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). In late November and early December, intense fighting in the flashpoint city of Taiz threatened to undermine the agreement, but by Dec. 4 local mediators secured a ceasefire. That same day, Hadi formed the Military Affairs Committee tasked with overseeing military/security de-escalation and restructuring. The committee began clearing streets of checkpoints in Sanaa and other cities on Dec. 17 and they plan to complete the task within one week. In short, the technicalities of the agreement are being implemented, yet many challenges remain, not least of which is a political environment with a lack of trust, desperate economic and humanitarian conditions, and significant inclusion and justice deficits in the agreement itself.
Political infighting and potential spoilers
The most critical challenge during phase one arguably will be keeping signatories moving in the same direction and holding potential spoilers at bay. This will be especially difficult in the military/security sector where progress has been comparatively slow and where the principle of "no victor, no vanquished" has left intact the two armed power-centers: the army and security forces controlled by Saleh’s family on the one hand and a combination of defected army units controlled by General Ali Mohsen, tribesmen loyal to the al-Ahmar clan, and Islah-controlled militias, on the other.
Because both sides have maintained their positions, and each is deeply suspicious of the other, it would be imprudent to begin with fundamental military or security restructuring. Instead, the first priority should be on coordinated de-escalation. This appears to be happening, as the Military Affairs Committee has called for the removal of all checkpoints and roadblocks, the return of military units to their barracks and, a return of militias to their villages, all of which is to be completed by Dec. 24. If carried out, these measures will go far in restoring a sense of normalcy and security to the capital and other affected cities.
Assuming successful implementation, these steps could then set the stage for the kind of in-depth institutional restructuring that is necessary to establish civilian control over the military. This would entail standardized hiring, firing, and retirement practices as well as the regular rotation of military and security officers. By addressing such matters only after elections are held, the authorities can satisfy the widespread public desire to remove — or at least clearly restrict the influence of — certain military officers, while at the same time avoiding a precipitous approach that carries the potential of provoking a stalemate or, worse, armed confrontation, during the first phase.
So far, international scrutiny has focused almost exclusively on Saleh. That might have been understandable in the past, but it no longer can suffice. At one point or another, each of the armed groups mentioned above has been responsible for violence and contributed to an environment where human rights violations have occurred; going forward, either side could torpedo meaningful implementation of the agreement. Henceforth, the international community will need to closely monitor all parties and hold them accountable — including publicly reprimanding and sanctioning those proven uncooperative.
In addition to military and security obstacles, the agreement could be undermined by political infighting both within the coalition government and among political parties. Already, the opposition has charged the GPC with a number of violations, including destroying documents in sensitive ministries like interior, finance, and justice. For its part, the GPC accuses the opposition of planning to violate the spirit of the initiative by, among other things, using its ministerial portfolios to proceed with investigations and prosecution of regime insiders. GPC supporters also complain that the opposition has yet to fulfill its commitment under the agreement to halt any direct support for the protests. To date, media outlets on both sides have made deeply inflammatory statements, stoking tensions and undermining the potential for cooperation.
Encouraging opposing parties to honor their commitments under the initiative and to work together will be a constant challenge. While international actors must play an important monitoring role in this respect, so too should domestic oversight agencies and civil society groups. Domestic tools exist, including the civil service law which governs hiring and firing within ministries. Enforcement of this law could minimize the risk of politicization of bureaucratic decisions and more clearly circumscribe political conflict. International monitors also could work closely with the Central Organization for Control and Audit in overseeing corruption. The abuse of public finance was a central grievance against the Saleh regime and many Yemenis are now concerned that the opposition will be tempted to commit similar abuses. As with the military/security sector, control over the public finances sector must be shared, transparent, and closely monitored to ensure balance and to reduce tensions during the transition. Independent youth activists, their strong misgivings about the GCC initiative notwithstanding, can play a role by pressuring the government as well as political parties to operate lawfully, transparently, and in keeping with their pledges of reform.
Delivering Security and Basic Services
A successful political transition will also depend on the government’s capacity to produce tangible progress in the lives of ordinary citizens, notably in the realms of security and basic services. As noted, some improvement has been made on the security front through the Military Affairs Committee. Among other needs, the priorities should be returning electricity and water provision to pre-crisis levels as well as stabilizing the price of, and improving access to, diesel and petrol. Meeting these objectives will not be possible without substantial international financial assistance, which ought to be closely monitored by donors. Insofar as possible, donors should discourage reactivation of petrol and diesel subsidies, a step with potentially dire fiscal consequences.
Political Inclusiveness and Transitional Justice
The accord is not without critics, or flaws. At its core, it reflects a power-sharing arrangement between the president and his party, the GPC, on one hand and a coalition of political opposition parties, known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), on the other. Largely missing from the arrangement are several important stakeholders, including but not limited to: the Houthi rebels in the north; the southern movement; and an emerging constituency that was particularly active during the uprising, the independent youth. As they and others see it, the initiative is little more than a reshuffling of the deck, a new allocation of authority among elites that — in one form or another — have been implicated in the organization of power around Saleh. The principal beneficiaries, they point out, are the GPC and the most influential member of the JMP opposition, the Islamist Islah party, which also enjoys historical ties to the regime. Many also reject the immunity clause, arguing that those responsible for abuses should be investigated and brought to trial.
Establishment of a more inclusive process cannot wait until the onset of the national dialogue. Although reducing tensions among members of the political elite is both legitimate and necessary, a parallel track should be put in place to bring in the three aforementioned groups, lest their exclusion obstruct the government’s ability to carry out early elections and a credible dialogue.
Fortunately, the implementation mechanism document mandates that the new government form a liaison committee to communicate with youth groups and it makes clear that the national dialogue in phase two must include all political actors and forces. Yet, thus far, inclusion efforts have taken a back seat to forging elite alliances at the political center between existing political parties. In many ways, the Houthi rebellion in the north, the southern movement, and the youth initiative uprising were a product of the failure of existing political parties and institutions to adequately aggregate and represent popular grievances and demands. As such, it is imperative that immediate action be taken to broaden meaningful inclusion.
Several steps could be taken in this respect. The government should open up direct lines of communication with these three constituencies in order to better understand their views on, as well as objections to, the structure and agenda of the national dialogue. It could also review the findings of existing government and or party-funded studies that have assessed the situation in the south and in Sadaa and consider implementing applicable recommendations. Important confidence-building measures for the south in particular may include: releasing remaining political prisoners (in a welcome step, the government released Hassan Ba-Aum, a prominent southern movement Hiraak leader who calls for southern independence, shortly after it was formed), investigating human rights abuses, removing certain controversial military and security officers, and more assertively facilitating humanitarian access to areas such as Abyan and Aden. Both the GPC and the opposition have been careful to ensure that southerners are well represented in the unity government. This is an important indication of good-will, but it is in no way a substitute for engaging with the southern movement and others regarding their priorities and preferences for the national dialogue.
The GCC initiative also suffers from the insufficient attention it pays to issues of transitional justice and reconciliation. Yemenis are sharply divided over the question of whether Saleh and his supporters ought to enjoy immunity. Many in the opposition insist that regime insiders must be investigated and prosecuted for crimes committed during the uprising; others believe that such an approach would distract the coalition government from its priorities, namely building a new state; still others (essentially Saleh backers), argue that the real criminals are on the opposition side and that individuals such as Ali Mohsen and Hameed al-Ahmar should be brought to trial.
Who should benefit from immunity and how to render justice are divisive, sensitive, and currently unsettled issues. Ignoring them, or putting them aside, risks undermining chances of a lasting political settlement. Still, signatories of the GCC initiative committed themselves to pass immunity legislation for the president and those who have worked with him. Qualms notwithstanding, the signatories should honor their pledge. However, this agreement does not in any way preclude thorough investigation of human rights violations and a serious national discussion regarding matters related to transitional justice. This discussion is essential to prevent cycles of revenge and to address the deeply-felt desire to expose unlawful behavior and compensate victims. In this respect, the country could build on a long national tradition that centers primarily on exposing the truth and compensating victims as opposed to punishing perpetrators. Ultimately, Yemenis will have to determine how to address their past, but it is best that this discussion begin now.
David W. Alley is a Lieutenant-Colonel in the U.S. Army (Retired), a retired Middle East Foreign Area Officer, and is currently the COO of Lime — Abu Dhabi, a political risk advisory firm. Abdulghani al-Iryani is an independent political analyst based in Sanaa, Yemen.
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