Yemen’s Rocky Roadmap

Yemenis hope that a planned National Dialogue will save the revolution. But what abut the guys with the guns? 

Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/GettyImages
Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/GettyImages

Yemen is on edge. It’s been more than a year since Yemen’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed to step down from power, but calm still seems elusive. On Saturday, 17 soldiers were killed in an ambush by alleged al Qaeda militants in the restive Mareb province, where the government has appeared nearly powerless to stop frequent sabotage against oil pipelines and electricity infrastructure. To the south, recent clashes between Yemeni forces and armed locals in the province of al-Dhale have left at least three civilians dead, prompting protests about the excessive use of force and inflaming anti-government sentiments in the separatist hotbed. In the capital itself, nerves have been strained by a string of attacks on security officials by motorcycle-riding gunmen, the latest of which left a counterterrorism officer seriously wounded.

Many local officials and Yemen-based diplomats insist that Yemen’s post-Saleh transition is moving forward. Such assurances notwithstanding, anxiety is rampant across the country, fueled by fears that the various factions of this divided nation will be unable to come together to prevent Yemen from falling apart.

"Yemen can’t move forward in a situation like this," said Hamza al-Kamaly, an activist who was recently beaten while attending a demonstration against a Saleh-era military commander. "The country is still divided, the military is still divided, and the old regime still has a huge amount of power."

While street protests were the catalyst, Saleh’s exit from power was ultimately secured by an internationally backed agreement, mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last November. It was essentially an elite compromise, forged between Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of Yemen’s established opposition parties, aimed at securing a peaceful transfer of power as the country appeared to be sliding towards anarchy. Defections by key military leaders had split the Yemeni armed forces into opposing halves. Factional clashes extended to the capital itself, and government’s control over much of the rest of the country appeared to dissipate.

The immediate goal may have been securing a peaceful transition, but the terms of the GCC deal provided the outline for a much broader process. Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s longtime deputy, was tapped as a consensus candidate for the presidency, ruling along with a unity government split between the GPC and the opposition JMP during his two-year transitional term. If all goes according to plan, 2014 will see the election of a new president and a new parliament under a rewritten constitution, following the reform of Yemen’s split military and the peaceful resolution of years-old disputes between the central government and increasingly powerful groups outside of Yemen’s formal power structure.

But regardless of inclusive aims, Yemen’s transitional process was ultimately the product of negotiations between traditional power brokers, and it was aimed at pacifying key players at least as much as it was at paving the way for a new future. Looking forward, the key question remains whether Yemen’s varied political factions will be able to come together to bring the country towards stability while laying the groundwork for an inclusive democracy. And as the people prepare for the highly anticipated conference of National Dialogue, achieving said goals continues to appear to be a nearly insurmountable challenge, predicated on the ability of Yemeni stakeholders to rise above crippling divisions to make the mutual concessions necessary to make a true break with the past.

Once dismissed as an empty suit, Hadi, was thrust into the center of the storm as a relative unknown. Since he took power he has surprised some pessimists by his willingness to challenge allies of the former president. Others hope that Hadi’s governance style suggests a move away from the heavily centralized rule of his predecessor. And, notably, after nearly a year in office, Hadi has retained the backing of many Yemenis and the bulk of the country’s political establishment, including many fierce opponents of his predecessor.

"There is progress," said Hamid al-Ahmar, a prominent tribal leader and Islah politician who has long been one of the former president’s most outspoken critics. "We believe that Hadi today is leading the country, and he is leading the revolution."

Such talk notwithstanding, the divisions within Yemen’s elite linger on. The key task of military restructuring still has a long way to go. Ahmed Ali, Saleh’s son, as well as General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a former regime strongman who is viewed as close to the Islamist Islah party (the largest component of the JMP), still retain control of many of the nation’s troops.

Meanwhile, even as many Yemenis have yearned for technocratic governance, the cabinet has proven a deeply partisan body. The government’s paralysis amid mutual distrust has underscored the seemingly intractable nature of divisions between the country’s leaders. Far from healing, the deep wounds splitting Yemen’s political establishment have continued to fester, echoed by a divisive media climate that often seems to present competing spheres of reality.

Over a year after the agreement on the transfer of power, the hard work of the transitional period has arguably yet to begin. Attention has shifted to the upcoming conference of "National Dialogue," a key step in the transitional roadmap outlined in the implementation mechanism of the GCC agreement. The National Dialogue’s stated goal is to provide an inclusive forum for representatives of a range of groups — political factions as well as youth, women, and members of civil society — to draft a new social contract for post-Saleh Yemen, sketching out the shape of the future Yemeni state and setting out the means for drafting a new constitution. Anticipation is high, and the consequences of failure could be dire. The president himself has warned that the failure of the National Dialogue could likely lead to Yemen’s descent into a civil war.

According to the most optimistic forecasts, the National Dialogue conference could begin before the end of the year. The dialogue’s preparatory committee has nearly completed its work, and both members and observers have characterized its deliberations as productive and largely respectful, despite the historical enmity between many of the factions represented. But the dialogue’s success is far from assured. And while an Arab Spring-inspired uprising ultimately set into motion the events let lead to the end of Saleh’s time in power, pre-2011 conflicts and power struggles continue to cast a heavy shadow over the transitional process.

In the south — an independent country until Yemen’s 1990 unification — the activists of the Southern Movement, largely suppressed since the group’s 2007 emergence, have come out empowered — and defiant. Rejecting calls for dialogue, many of their leaders have instead raised calls for complete disengagement with Sanaa. It’s a viewpoint that is by no means universal among southerners.

But as leaders in the divided grouping jockey for influence, the struggle for legitimacy has pushed many away from pragmatism. Radical voices have increasingly come to dominate the conversation. And as Sanaa-based politicians and international diplomats have strived to fulfill the transition’s ambitious, fast-paced roadmap, southern leaders have stressed the need for dialogue among themselves — which many have characterized as a near prerequisite for any possible involvement in talks on a national level — underscoring the challenges of forming a representative body out of groups that are often far from cohesive themselves.

"It’s not possible for any faction in the South to claim that it represents the south or all southerners," said Ali Nasser Mohamed, a former president of South Yemen who has yet to commit to entering the National Dialogue, commenting by email from exile in Cairo. "We hope to emerge from [internal] southern dialogue with a compromise vision and leadership that can represent the South in national dialogue."

Then there are also the Houthis, a clan once mired in a devastating, nearly decade-long conflict with the central government. They have already appeared to take the upper hand in Yemen’s far North, where they have carved out virtual control in the northern governorate of Saada and parts of neighboring provinces. In Sanaa, the territory is pejoratively referred to as a "state within a state;" Houthi leaders have dismissed such claims as political posturing, stressing that the group has unambiguously agreed to enter the dialogue process.

But their participation comes amidst a tense climate. Many Yemeni politicians and foreign diplomats claim the Houthis are working with Iran, repeating longstanding accusations that the Islamic Republic has provided arms and funding to the Zaydi Shi’a-led group. For their part, Houthi leaders have countered by labeling the current government as a reshuffling of old elites, condemning Hadi for his alliance with the United States, and stressing that national dialogue will not serve as the panacea that many seem to hope it will be.

"The [GCC] initiative only allowed a wing of the regime to rule again; the people do not accept this," said Saleh Habra, the head of the Houthi’s political bureau. "The dialogue comes in this context. Entering into dialogue isn’t a solution."

It’s a viewpoint that’s shared by many across political and societal lines. Even if the National Dialogue ends up with the wide-ranging participation necessary to claim legitimacy, the conference’s ability to achieve consensus — let alone its ability to do so quickly enough to allow for elections to take place on schedule — remains an open question. And while they’ve dominated discussions so far, the concerns of the Houthis and the Southern Movement will join a slate of other issues once the dialogue begins. While the participation of the GPC and the JMP has long been a given, many fear that their divisions will taint the dialogue process. And then there’s the role of potential spoilers — most notably the former president, who has resided in the capital since returning from medical treatment in the United States this February.

Beyond these factors, of course, are the deliberations of the conference itself. Subjects as diverse as women’s rights, the extension of apologies and possible compensation to victims of Saleh-era conflicts, and widely discussed (though deeply controversial) ideas for changing the structure of the government to a federal or parliamentary system could very well lead to the collapse of the dialogue. Getting everyone to the table, while a key step in the process, is only one of Yemen’s worries.

Expectations are high, but a general sense of pessimism is widespread. On a rhetorical level, the goals of the dialogue — reckoning with longstanding issues while paving the way for a break with the past and establishing a mandate for an accountable, democratic governance system — have nearly universal support, whether on the popular level or among Yemen’s elite. However, on a practical level, it remains to be seen whether factions deeply invested in the status quo will be willing to make the compromises necessary to make them a reality.

The fears have been focused on the National Dialogue’s potential failure, which could very well plunge Yemen into conflict. But even if the dialogue succeeds, restoring unity to this notoriously fractious country will still prove a tall order. Across the country, powerful tribal leaders maintain their hold over their own fighting forces; even the Yemeni army, many here complain, are closer to a collection of private militias than it is to a truly national military. Rather than holding a monopoly on power, the post-Saleh government often appears to be at the mercy of various factions whose interests often seem to diverge from those of the nation as a whole. In some sense, it’s a thorny paradox: As the country aims to move forward, the cooperation of such divergent interest groups is key. But their continued sway, many argue, could render any progress in Sanaa moot.

"The source of Yemen’s problems is clear," says Mujahid al-Kuhali, who serves as Minister of Expatriate Affairs in the unity government. "The center of power remains in the hands of certain armed groups controlled by men… who work for themselves rather than for Yemen. Until this changes, the problems will not be solved."

Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an International Security Program fellow at New America. He was based in Sanaa, Yemen between 2011 and 2014. @adammbaron.

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