Yemen’s Saleh: Will He Stay or Will He Go?

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Written by Steve Lutes, Contributor

“When are people going to wake up and say is Yemen a failed state?” pondered Laura Kasinof, a correspondent for the New York Times in Yemen, while serving as a panelist at a recent New America Foundation (NAF) hosted forum entitled: “Yemen Awakening? Reporting from Change Square, Sanaa.”

While people have “cried wolf” several times suggesting that Yemen was on the brink of collapse, this time the situation appears truly as grave as Kasinof suggests. An acute level of disorder, instability, and suffering has been reached following 10 months of political crisis and popular protests that evolved into a demand for the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. A health and humanitarian crisis is also unfolding in this distressed country with people unable to get to hospitals, children not receiving vaccinations, mass malnutrition, and a sizeable portion of the population unable to access clean water; all of which adds another layer to the grim situation. And, of course, these critical issues are only amplified by the violence and political uncertainty plaguing the beleaguered nation.

Suffice to say that with the “central” government having little actual control over much of the country, nothing remotely resembling a monopoly on violence within its borders, and a total inability to provide basic public services to its citizens, “failed state” certainly seems to be an apt description of Yemen regardless of the recent possible step toward greater political stability. The purported step forward is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative — an agreement signed in November by President Saleh and Yemeni political opposition and supported by the United States — to transfer power from Saleh to a national unity government. It represents the fourth such attempt to facilitate Saleh’s ouster, and comes after the United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on him to step down and for an end to the violence.Mohammed Albasha, Spokesman for the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in the United States, who also served as a panelist at the NAF event, expressed gratitude for the efforts of the U.S. Ambassador in Yemen who he asserts played a key, hands-on role in bringing together political factions to sign the pact. According to Albasha, the agreement was signed by all the recognized political factions in Yemen. However, the agreement did not include representatives from the protestors in the streets of cities and towns throughout Yemen or other significant factions such as the Southern separatist movement or the al-Houthi rebels — each of which will be a factor in determining the difficulty and duration it takes to achieve a degree of peace and stability in Yemen.

In the United States, the agreement was hailed as an important step forward. In a statement released by the White House, President Obama said, “For ten months, the Yemeni people have courageously and steadfastly voiced their demands for change in cities across Yemen in the face of violence and extreme hardship. Today’s agreement brings them a significant step closer to realizing their aspirations for a new beginning in Yemen. The United States urges all parties to move immediately to implement the terms of the agreement, which will allow Yemen to begin addressing an array of formidable challenges and chart a more secure and prosperous path for the future. The United States will continue to stand by the Yemeni people as they embark on this historic transition.”

Under the designs of the accord, temporary authority to run the government was given to Saleh’s deputy, Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who has been entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing elections for a new president which are to be held in February 2012. Until then the plan calls for the formation of an interim government that is to divide the ministries between Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the political opposition, including Islamists and socialists, which has coalesced into a coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). The plan also creates a committee to demilitarize urban areas and reconstruct the armed forces, and establishes a pathway to draft a new constitution. While the agreement did transfer power and requires Saleh to leave office in exchange for immunity from prosecution, there is widespread doubt whether he will follow through on that promise in deed and in spirit.

This doubt was reinforced when Saleh, having already relinquished power to his deputy, declared a vague general amnesty for those who had make mistakes during the political upheaval and interrelated violence of the past 10 months. While Albasha contends that “people with blood on their hands will be prosecuted eventually,” such a statement of amnesty only fuels the fire for those skeptical of the agreement. And even if Saleh formally relinquishes the Presidency in accordance with the GCC deal, there is much concern that he will continue to wield power through his proxies, particularly family members who hold key positions in the government’s armed forces and security apparatus.

From the perspective of the protestors who have demonstrated a willingness to die for their cause, they collectively know what they want first and foremost – Saleh out. And not just out as the President, but totally removed from government and politics, gone from power, and held responsible for the violence orchestrated against the protestors. Beyond that what would follow is an open question, but there seems to be widespread sentiment among protestors that the GCC initiative does not address their goals and ambitions.

The political solution on the table that professes to end Saleh’s tenure has largely been panned by suspicious protestors, with Kasinof noting that it is considered “more a reshuffling of the political elites instead of what was called for at the beginning of the popular revolt.” In their view, as the political opposition comprising the JMP grabbed its share of government power, the man they largely hold liable for the deaths of hundreds of protestors was allowed to escape accountability while his governing party was permitted to remain in charge — essentially sanctioning the carnage and violence wrought by Saleh and his allies in exchange for clout in the new government.

Despite the cynicism about the GCC plan, Albasha called the deal “the clear, available roadmap to stop the bloodshed” and asserted that it is important not to lose hope. While he believes that the Yemen that emerges from this turmoil will be a better and stronger Yemen in the long run, Albasha conceded that “the next government will have daunting and unbelievable tasks.” On this point, Kasinof was in agreement, observing that despite the potential for political change on the horizon “the problem is: has Yemen reached the point of no return; and even if there are attempts, even if there are efforts toward that political change, which is still a question, is that even possible and is that even going to happen because of how bad everything has become in terms of security breakdown and economic breakdown.”

There is no question the problems facing Yemen going forward are immense. In the weeks following the signing of the agreement to transition power, violence has remained an everyday reality for many Yemenis. An already-poor nation has arrived at the point of abject poverty. The crackdown in the city of Taiz – known for its educated, cultured and politically active population – has been particularly harsh. Fighting between pro-Saleh government forces and dissident tribesmen has left dozens dead and civilians terrorized as government forces shelled civilian neighborhoods. While the opposing forces have disengaged, the ceasefire is tenuous with the potential for fighting to erupt again at any time.

In a country rife with tribal rivalries and regional conflicts, perilous disputes include a long-standing, simmering dispute between North and South Yemen, which broke out into a civil war in 1994, and a rebellion in the north pitting by Shiite al-Houthi rebels against Sunni Salafis and pro-Saleh government forces.

To this day, there is a strong secessionist sentiment and movement in south Yemen, where many have felt, since the 1990 unification, discriminated-against politically and taken advantage of economically by the political powers in the north. The potential for separatists to seize on the political instability in the north and lack of control in the south is very real. Evidence of the loss of control by pro-Saleh forces in the south is the now-common display of the flag of South Yemen in Aden. An act of defiance that would have previously drawn severe retribution from security forces is today widespread and without rebuke.

The Houthis have been prominent in the Sa’ada province, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia, and neighboring provinces. In the past, the Saudis have joined Saleh’s forces in trying to crush the Houthi rebellion to no avail. Saying he worries about the “Somaliazation” of Yemen, Albasha emphasized that a failure to include leaders from the Houthis and southern secessionist movements in the next government would create serious problems. The hope is that the national dialogue decreed by the GCC deal includes voices from these and other diverse factions at the table.

One other critical security issue facing Yemen is the presence and proliferation of al Qaeda through their affiliate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The manifestation of AQAP led the United States to work closely with Saleh and his intelligence and security organizations and to initially refrain from criticism of Saleh. Albasha noted that AQAP has adopted an insurgency strategy and is essentially trying to carve out a territorial mini-state in southern Yemen. Concern over the terrorist organization possessing a base of operations from which to train and launch attacks will continue to be a primary issue for the United States as well as the Saudis as the political dynamic in Yemen plays out.

In addition to numerable security issues, Yemen’s economic outlook is dismal. Unemployment has skyrocketed and inflation is up. Electricity is sporadic. Banks have been unable to issue letters of credit. The currency has devalued and their reserves are falling. Foreign direct investment projects have halted. The main pipeline has been bombed three times costing the government billions in revenue. The private sector faces losses in the billions due to the violence and instability. Famine is looming. As Albasha related, “2012 will be a very, very rough year,” stressing the importance of international donors fulfilling their promises in terms of money and technical assistance to help get the economy back on track.

With all these issues swirling around and unfolding, the lingering question of whether the GCC deal will work and Saleh will actually go festers and aggravates the situation. Albasha rhetorically asked himself “will the agreement hold up?”, to which he responded, “I really believe it will” and adding that there can be no progress without security and stability.

Whenever one thinks of Yemen and the situation with Saleh, the classic song by The Clash Should I Stay or Should I Go inevitably creeps to mind, particularly the stanza:

If I go there will be trouble

And if I stay it will be double

So come on and let me know

Should I stay or should I go?

While there certainly seems to be both a domestic and international outcry telling Saleh to go, he has shown a strong propensity for staying. Notwithstanding an agreement that technically has him relinquishing the Presidency, there are seemingly loopholes to enable him to stay (and not face prosecution) and be actively engaged in the GPC as well as having his will exercised through his allies and relatives occupying key government positions.

Even without Saleh there would be alarming and overwhelming challenges confronting Yemen. But if he is permitted to stay and retain power, the troubles facing the Yemenis very well may be “doubled” if not multiplied several times over.

Steve Lutes is a freelance writer currently pursuing a Masters in International Affairs from Virginia Tech University.

Photo: Southern Yemen protestors call for succession in a march on December 7th. Reuters.