What’s next for Yemen? Three scenarios for Yemen’s future
By: Andrew Bowen / The Majalla (author), Maryam Ishani / The Majalla (author), Thomas Alberts / The Majalla (author)
With the world’s attention focused on Tunisia, Syria, and Iran, developments in Yemen have made few headlines recently. Yet after 10 months of violent protests, Yemen may be the closest it has been to a peaceful transfer of power after 33 years of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule. This potential hand-over of power is a remarkable turnaround following Yemen’s summer of discontent.
Back in June, after suffering severe injuries in a bomb attack, Saleh traveled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He stayed away for more than three months, creating some optimism among opposition groups that the President would not return. But Saleh clung on to power from his hospital bed and when he returned to Yemen, he resumed power with increased vigor and combativeness. This resurgence cannot be attributed to him alone, and says a great deal about the relative weakness of opposition forces that did not have sufficient strength or unity to prevent his return.
The opposition’s failure comes from both its diversity and its divisions. The main opposition group, Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), is dominated by the Islamist party Al-Islah and the southern Yemeni Socialist Party. Also significant among opposition groups is the Hashid tribal federation, although some observers think their interests are more commercial than political. In the northwest, the Shia Houthis allied themselves with anti-Saleh protesters early in the uprising but later fell out with the Sunni Islah, highlighting another fault line in opposition unity. Then there is Saleh’s former comrade and now arch-rival General Ali Mohsen who defected in May, along with the army’s First Armored Division, which was under his command. Interspersed within this opposition coalition are a number of special interest groups – from various tribes to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – which are seeking their own end goals.
Since March, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has waded into these poisoned waters and has been trying to facilitate President Saleh’s exit. Deals have been agreed and on every occasion Saleh has reneged at the last minute. In recent weeks however, UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has been working out a new deal whereby Saleh would resign after transferring power to his deputy – ahead of new presidential elections within three months.
Agreements have previously been very close to conclusion, but the GCC experience cautions that convincing Saleh to leave is not an easy task. The Majalla examines three scenarios for Yemen in the coming months – both the challenges inherent within them and their likelihood.
If President Saleh does not step down soon, Yemen will begin to crack at the seams and outright civil war would likely result. With a settlement yet to be reached, Saleh continues to watch uncaringly as Yemen burns. During 10 months of violence he has managed to keep the international community holding its collective breath for his imminent departure, with one promise after another that he will step down. On Saturday 5 November he was expected to step down at any moment; today he remains in office.
Drastic shortages of food, water and jobs means an increasingly restless, desperate and volatile population that could be easily radicalized and recruited into irregular armed groups. Instability in Marib means fuel shortages, and residents in the Abyan governorate in South Yemen are preparing for outright war after months of endless fighting between Salafists and Houthis.
Near the capital, the Arhab and Nihm regions of Sana’a governorate have been divided, with the former supporting Saleh and the latter demanding his departure. Their clashes have involved control of the country’s largest airport and three times control has changed hands.
While rival political and military factions continue to battle in Yemen’s urban centers, fighting endures in the country’s rural tribal areas, bringing not just tribal identity but bitter-fought sectarian divisions into the fray. Yemen’s northern Houthi Shi’ite rebels have been bogged down in fighting with Salafis, while AQAP have been co-ordinating attacks in Sa’ada and Al-Jaf against Houthi fighters.
Yemeni tribes, their militias, and sectarian divisions will become more entrenched and the chances of a peaceful transition of power will be slim. Should Saleh’s sons and extended family – intimately connected to parts of his government – go after tribal leaders, Yemen’s largely peaceful and tribally governed rural areas will become radicalized and defensive. Until now AQAP did not have room to maneuver, but the further destabilization and undermining of the relationship between the capital and tribal authority will create room for Al-Qaeda. As we know by now, Al-Qaeda thrives in violence and instability.
Patience is beginning to wear thin, even among Saleh’s friends. Yemeni businessmen are pushing politicians for a power transfer deal – anxious about the economic disaster that Yemen has been forced to delay addressing. This will make it more difficult for Saleh to stay in power, and stalemate will likely lead to civil war.
In this scenario, the army abandons President Saleh, and either backs another candidate within the government or the Vice President, or joins the breakaway division led by General Mohsen. When it comes to life expectancy for a leader in the Arab world after a coup d’état, President Saleh need look no further than his fellow leader, Muammar Qadhafi, who was dragged alive into a crowd, beaten and shot several times in the head after he stubbornly resisted handing over power. Unlike the voluntary exits of Ben Ali and Mubarak, which led to a certain level of comfort in their post-presidential days, Saleh is unlikely to receive the same treatment if he clings to power and is forcefully overthrown by the army.
Saleh has spent his 33 years in power “dancing on the heads of snakes” and this special ritual dance has gained him a number of enemies, as well as friends willing to throw him into the snake pit if necessary. Saleh’s use of force against his own people since the start of the uprisings has made this dance even more difficult – as tribes both in the North and the South who supported his rule have broken with him and a division of the army led by Mohsen has caused a split in the army.
If the army were to split from him, Saleh’s family fiefdom, largely based in Sana’a, would almost certainly fall. Despite having some support still in the tribes, Saleh, a military man, has always relied on the military to fight his opposition and provide threatening motivation for aid from the West, which relies on him to fight AQAP. Using the anti-terrorism funds, Saleh has lubricated the family fiefdom and its patronage network. Losing his ace of spades would mean the end of Saleh’s rule.
It’s unclear how the army will go if they break with Saleh, but it would likely choose from within its own ranks and cleanse the Saleh family and senior administration officials that are synonymous with the Saleh regime from both the regime and the army’s senior ranks. If Iraq is any historical analogy, Ali Abdullah Saleh should remember the fate of Abd Al-Karim Qassem, who in his own snake dance, failed to hold onto power in 1963, and was subsequently shot in the head.
The chance of the army breaking with him completely is quite low, due to stocking the army with his own family and allies. The possibility of the army and the opposition being able to quickly reconcile after 10 months of bitter fighting is also tricky. Hence, this scenario looks unlikely.
In this scenario, President Saleh steps down and a process of power transfer begins. Saleh has, of course, repeatedly affirmed the GCC deal, only to renege on signing it. Saleh asks to whom he should hand power, this was really only ever a delaying tactic. In recent weeks, however, the UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar has been negotiating a transfer mechanism. Saleh would hand power to Vice-President Abd Al-Rab Mansur Al-Hadi, the opposition and ruling General People’s Congress would form a unity government, and the army would be restructured ahead of new presidential elections within three months. It sounds good on paper, but the plan has huge problems, not least being who exactly will execute it.
Benomar has conducted his shuttle diplomacy between Saleh’s General People’s Congress and the main opposition grouping, JMP. Yet the opposition movement is wider than the JMP; for the deal to endure, it must avoid appearing to be a stitch-up between these two rivals. On the other hand, if the process is widened, there is a risk that the power transfer will turn into a multiparty conference and national dialogue of the sort that accompanies constitutional negotiations and reforms. While not a bad thing in itself, this would increase the likelihood of a prolonged period of change and political instability.
Even within the three month window leading to presidential elections, there are considerable problems. The willingness of the General People’s Party to negotiate with the opposition is untested, as is the willingness of either or both General Mohsen and loyal army commanders (several of whom are Saleh’s blood or tribal relations) to restructure the army. As happened in Libya, anti-government demonstrators are unified by their opposition and less by a positive vision of what would replace the vilified President. For the same reason, they lack leaders who can credibly claim to represent their collective will, whatever that may be. General Mohsen’s mutiny effectively declared his presidential ambitions and his subsequent protection of protesters camped in Sana’a’s Change Square has brought him some support. Yet it is far from clear how much support he holds among the disparate assembly of opposition groups or how long this will endure once a political transition begins. More pointedly, it is unclear whether these groups, or who among them, will accept presidential elections as the achievement of 10 months of protest.
The risk in this scenario is that the power vacuum that will open when Saleh steps down cannot be filled easily or comfortably within the three-month window envisaged by the UN. It may have the opposite effect, by spurring competition between groups who until now have been tentative allies against Saleh. In this scenario, the biggest winner will be the General People’s Congress.
None of these scenarios envision that Saleh can continue in power in the longer term and Saleh’s own words and action suggest the President recognizes that reality. He acknowledged this in a statement on Tuesday, “I have 33 years of experience in power and I know the difficulties, I know the negatives and positives. The one who clings to power is mad.”
The question now for the short term is how Saleh will hand over power: will he be able to secure his and his family’s interests as he leaves, or will he lose it all as Yemen moves on from him? In the longer term, Yemen must begin to think about rebuilding a state that has deep scars.