The Middle East Channel

Building a Yemeni state while losing a nation

During his recent visit to the United States, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen expressed his concerns that if the National Dialogue — a forum supposedly representing the major political players in Yemen — fails, Yemen could slide into a civil war that will be worse than those in Somalia or Afghanistan. Part of ...

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

During his recent visit to the United States, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen expressed his concerns that if the National Dialogue — a forum supposedly representing the major political players in Yemen — fails, Yemen could slide into a civil war that will be worse than those in Somalia or Afghanistan. Part of this rhetoric was strategic, intended to nudge the so-called "Friends of Yemen" to commit to much needed (although potentially pernicious) aid. Nevertheless, Hadi is only slightly exaggerating the dangers Yemen could face, and recent developments — such as the delay of the National Dialogue — make his predictions more worrisome.

Hadi, who ran unopposed in February, was elected after a prolonged stalemate since January 2011. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-engineered compromise that ensured the transfer of power from then President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Hadi helped avert the civil war that Yemen was dangerously skirting at that time. Many groups in Yemen, however, view the GCC deal as a failure and an imposition that ensured that formal and informal power remain in the hands of old elites. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) reports, Yemeni elites have kept their hold on power as they continue to play musical chairs with government positions. Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels in the North, the Hiraaki separatists in the South, as well as various youth groups who were the backbone of the early days of the revolution, are left out of the deal. 

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the Yemeni revolution lacked a distinct end-point and was a visible and drastic departure with the past. Saleh’s stalling techniques in his resignation exasperated the revolutionaries and the international community alike. And even after his departure, Saleh maintains a strong grasp on part of the military: his son, Ahmed Ali, commands the elite Republican Guard and his nephew, Yahya Saleh, heads the Central Security Forces. Moreover, he has a strong power base through his own tribal group, the Sanhan, as well as tribal alliances that he has been able to buy. On top of all this, he purportedly has links to al Qaeda in Yemen increasing the potential damage that he can do to the government’s efforts to reform. Tellingly, while Saleh continues to entertain political and social actors as if he is still in charge, President Hadi has been turned into a telecommuting president, because he cannot ensure his own security in the presidential palace. Meanwhile, according to Dr. April Alley of the ICG, the Islah Party that was given an important part in the GCC deal is increasingly taking a larger share of government posts. This, too, is not very dissimilar from the Saleh era. Then, many members of Islah, nominally in opposition, received disproportionately large slices of the government pie, even compared to the General People’s Congress (the GPC) — Saleh’s own party.

It is easy, therefore — although mistaken — to view the situation in Yemen as more of the same. While formal political power and many government institutions remain in the hands of the old elite, the overall balance of power in the country has shifted away from Sanaa and the government. The Houthi rebels control most of the northern part of what is known as North Yemen, and the Southern Separatist Movement (the Hiraak) has become increasingly more vocal in rejecting the legitimacy of a unified state. Beside a weak central state, these two groups provide veritable checks to the power of the central government, and there can be no solution to the many, many, ills that Yemen faces without taking this situation into account.

Officially, there have been attempts to accommodate these shifting power centers into the National Dialogue. While the Hiraaki are not partaking in the dialogue, most other groups, including the Houthis, have their representatives at the table. According to Hisham Sharjabi, activist and cofounder of one of the most dynamic new parties in Yemen, Al Watan, the National Dialogue has been productive, respectful, and inclusive. In September, Hadi also appointed two southerners to the dialogue; they, however, do not represent the separatist movement. Hadi also appointed four new members from Islah, which shifts the balance in their favor and makes it more likely that proposals coming out of the National Dialogue will reflect Islah’s own interests.

Outside of the official rhetoric and meeting rooms, inclusion and mutual respect seem even farther from each group’s agenda. As their representatives put proposals on the table, Houthi rebels have been fighting with Islah and Salafi groups over control of territory in the North. During one of my meetings in early August with a leader of the Houthi movement in Sanaa, Ali Al Emad, and two members of Islah, tolerant discussions of both parties’ roles in the revolution were punctuated with contentious accusations concerning each group’s role in the periods prior to and after the revolution. Leaders of Islah have repeatedly rejected the Islamic credentials of the Houthi movement, accusing the Houthis (who are Shiites) of being pawns of Iran who are intentionally exacerbating sectarian tensions for their own benefit.

An irony not lost on the Houthis and Yemenis at large, however, is that Saudi Arabia has been pulling the strings of many Sunni groups (including factions within Islah), as well as individual sheikhs throughout the country. Nevertheless, being accused of collaborating with the global bogeyman of Iran is a heftier charge, and one that resonates with the international community. During his trip abroad, Hadi accused Iran of interfering in Yemen’s affairs and causing trouble in the South, while thanking Saudi Arabia for its role and gratefully accepting the millions of dollars it promises to give Yemen. While Iranian covert involvement, especially in the context of its losing an important ally in Syria, is quite plausible, such finger pointing intentionally aims to delegitimize the claims of the Houthi and Hiraaki movements, and ultimately makes compromise that much more difficult.

The Houthis, who suffered greatly under the wars led by General Ali Mohsen — who is now the military power behind Islah and the president — have legitimate reasons to be cautious of Sanaa. Similarly, while many areas of Yemen (notably middle Yemen) are incredibly poor through various acts of omission by the Saleh regime, the South is incredibly poor through willful acts of commission. And there is little in the current make-up of the current government to assuage their concerns. Hence, given that the government has neither control nor legitimacy over large areas of Yemen — the Houthi areas and the South — it is perhaps fortuitous that the promised aid from the Friends of Yemen will most likely not arrive before the National Dialogue is over (if at all). While Yemen is in desperate need of aid — and humanitarian aid should and must be distributed through international donors as soon as possible — funneling money directly into the hands of a central government that has no capacity to absorb it and in a country that has become de-facto decentralized would be pernicious.

Hadi stated that the failure of the National Dialogue would be a disaster for Yemen. However, unless something happens before the conference is rescheduled, the lack of Southern Separatist representation poses a great challenge to its success. There are legitimate criticisms of the Southern leadership’s handling of the situation, such as their inability to act as a united front, put forth a clear proposal for separation, or even to represent most of the South. There are also some less legitimate criticisms, such as those who claim that since the president (a Southerner himself) has issued a specific invitation to separatists to join the dialogue, the separatists are being uncooperative. However, the separatists are hearing conflicting messages and fear that they will again be the losers in a compromise. While the government calls for dialogue of all parties, the so-called Friends of Yemen who support the government in this dialogue have made explicit their rejection of the possibility of secession. In fact, they have proposed sanctions on leaders of the Southern movement. The Southern leaders, meanwhile, have asked for international mediation to help put forth plans for separation. As the government in Sanaa lacks the capacity to deal with its most pressing issues — most notably the need for military reform — the voices in the South who believe that they will be better off alone are getting stronger.

Those voices need to be given a proper venue. The government and the international community need to make it explicit before the national conference that they are willing to consider all options equally, and they need to coax the Southern movement to join the dialogue with the explicit promise that their plans will be given due consideration. The southern leaders need to put forth their proposals for separation, including an explanation of how separation would be feasible for the South (which is a much bigger problem than they acknowledge.) Meanwhile, a parallel proposal for federalism that guarantees the rights of each region, and which establishes safeguards ensuring that government resources are distributed equitably, must be considered in addition to the separatist agenda. The points of each proposal must be widely distributed and discussed, before a referendum can be held on each proposal at a later date. This, of course, would require that the Friends of Yemen accept the possibility of separation, and consider realistically the plan B of providing technical assistance to two separate states, both of which will lack the capacity for the most basic governmental duties.

Of course, none of these proposals outlines an easy path forward for Yemen. And in fact, dealing with the secession issue is harder in practice because it is only one of the many problems facing Yemen. One of those problems is reforming the military such that it is no longer in the hands of rogue generals (Mohsen) or members of the Saleh family. These two questions — military reform and secession — are the two most pressing political issues facing Yemen, and either has the potential to plunge the country into a civil war. A Chatham House analysis of scenarios most likely to unfold in Yemen includes as its best scenario a clause that requires Mohsen to mysteriously die before 2014 , sometime after pledging support for Hadi’s proposals. Flights of fancy may be attractive given the complex and dire nature of the situation Yemenis now face.

Any potential solution for Yemen must take account of all the various players who currently dominate Yemen’s political landscape. Ignoring the concerns of the Southern movement and refusing to countenance the possibility of secession is dangerous. Yemen successfully avoided a civil war last year with the help of the GCC, but it was only a band-aid for the short term. Meanwhile, the voices from different camps are getting louder, and the potential personal benefit of remaining in power, especially with the promise of foreign aid, could further exacerbate the situation.

Last but not least, countervailing foreign interests in Yemen would add fuel to the fire should the country descend into a civil war. In 2007, Saudi Arabia sent an entire air force against a few Houthi rebels crossing its border, and such paranoia is even greater after the Arab Spring and the persistent problems with Shiite communities in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. Iran, meanwhile, will continue to balance Saudi Arabia within Yemen. The United States will most likely support whichever group or leader it considers a partner against al Qaeda in Yemen, a policy that rarely works to the benefit of the country on the receiving end of the drone attacks. Should Yemen slide into a civil war, the conflicting interests of these countries would exacerbate it. And considering the fact that Yemen has the second largest number of weapons per person in the world, Hadi’s warning could indeed be right: it could be worse than Somalia and Afghanistan.

Silvana Toska is a PhD candidate in the department of government at Cornell University in international relations and comparative politics focusing on the Middle East and Africa.

Silvana Toska is a doctoral candidate in international relations and the Middle East and Africa at Cornell University.