After the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh as president of Yemen, hopes for change in the country were high. Given that the power structure hasn’t drastically altered, however, it is still not clear whether these hopes will be realized.
March 30, 2012
President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to relinquish his office in November 2011. He formally stepped down in February 2012 in favor of his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansur Al-Hadi, who is now president.
Saleh remains, however, a major force in Yemeni politics: he is head of the General People’s Congress party, and members of his immediate family retain key positions in the military and intelligence services. Examples include his son, Ahmad, who heads the Republican Guard, and his nephew, Yahya, who leads the Central Security Services.
So far, all signs point to Saleh’s unwillingness to give up his influence, especially as long as his political rivals remain active and in a position to dominate Yemen.
One group of rivals is the Ahmar brothers, of the Shaykhly family of the tribe of Hashid, who are hopelessly divided against one another and unable to rally around one leader.
Another rival is one of Saleh’s relatives and erstwhile ally, General Ali Muhsin, who commands the first division of the Yemeni army. This trio of rivals, each of whom regards it as his right to rule Yemen, will not give up the competition for power unless all are made to simultaneously exit politics. Their continued presence represents a threat to the emergence of a stable political order in the country.
There is one principal question that policy makers in the Gulf region (as well as in the West) must ask themselves: can Yemen pursue stability and development in spite of the presence and influence of these rival forces, or is their departure is necessary for Yemen’s long-term stability?
At present, Yemen is a tinderbox that could easily become an inferno of violence, leading to civil war and perhaps even the division of the country. The rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh since 1978 has effectively stripped the country of all institutions: he governed in a highly personalized manner, keeping the government deliberately chaotic and tying all actors directly to the president. Institutions did not matter; rather, what did was whether one was in the president’s favor and a beneficiary of his patronage.
For example, after unification in 1990, Saleh re-tribalized the regions of former South Yemen (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen). This was intended to dismantle the institutions of this state and create personalized links with new tribal leaders, many of whom engaged in predatory practices by expropriating land and other economic resources in the south. This is one reason why so many southerners feel that Saleh’s rule represented an occupation of their portion of the country, and the reason why some sought to secede.
This dream of separation will remain alive in the south so long as Saleh (or members of his family) remain in power. And it is this southern sentiment of being dispossessed and misgoverned that has allowed Al-Qaeda, and like-minded groups like Ansar Al-Sharia, to find refuge and support in these regions.
Saleh’s resignation came in the form of a deal to transfer power brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council. This deal allowed Saleh to resign in return for immunity from prosecution; however, it did not address many critical issues, such as Saleh’s continuing political role or that of his entrenched and heavily armed rivals.
The army remains divided, and large swathes of the country are under the control of forces not beholden to the central government, such as the northern regions under the Zaydi Huthis and portions of the south under Al-Qaeda affiliated groups. In short, the GCC deal has brought about some political changes in the form of a new government and a new president, but it does not provide an outline or program for the needed structural reforms that will set Yemen on a course towards stability and order.
Furthermore, providing Yemen with much needed economic aid—while perhaps necessary—will not solve the country’s profound developmental problems. The country struggles with generalized malnutrition and overpopulation, the collapse of all social services, a calamitous decline in water resources, and staggering corruption and government incompetence.
Making matters worse is the fact that the policy of the United States toward Yemen is exclusively focused on Al-Qaeda and the security threat it poses. In practical terms, this means that the US views Yemen through a military prism that involves a combination of training certain units of the Yemeni army and the use of drones and airpower in the fight against Al-Qaeda.
Thus far, this policy has empowered those units under Saleh’s family command, turning many Yemenis against the United States for effectively supporting Saleh’s dynasty, as well as ignoring the real problems of misrule and underdevelopment.
Given the array of problems listed above, where does the solution lie? There is no simple answer to Yemen’s problems. The political field is highly segmented and the country has few if any functioning institutions.
The solution, if one is to be found, must come from the Yemenis themselves and must involve the creation of a system of rule that unites the different actors around a set of shared goals rather than the zero-sum power struggle in which they are presently engaged.
The regional actors, led by Saudi Arabia, also have a key role to play in helping Yemenis begin the long journey toward stability. The Kingdom is the only country with the intimate historical knowledge, longstanding contacts, and financial and political resources to help initiate the necessary reforms.
These must include finding a way for Saleh, the Ahmar Shaykhs and Ali Muhsin to devolve power to other actors who have a cleaner record and reputation. President Hadi’s ascent to the presidency is a good start, and now is the time to help him build a base of support that is independent of Saleh.
Should the reform of the Yemeni political system fail to materialize, the country would become a failed state and civil war and secession would be a strong possibility. Furthermore, Iran has been offering its support—financial and political—to any dissident Yemeni forces willing to accept it.
This does not bode well for the future, since it might mean another proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the battleground in another Arab country. This is the time to prevent this from happening, by supporting a new and reformed political order that represents a clean break from the rule of Saleh and his rivals.