Yemen’s GCC Initiative: Cosmetic or comprehensive change?
After nine months of mass protests calling for an end to the regime, and six months after the initial Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative was submitted, Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the GCC’s implementing mechanism on 23 November 2011, at a ceremony in Saudi Arabia. The deal involved the transfer of his powers to Vice President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, in return for immunity from prosecution. A national unity government will be created, evenly divided between the opposition and Saleh’s ruling party.
While the GCC implementing mechanism marks the first step in a political process on the long road to change, it fell short of the comprehensive change protesters have been demanding for some 10 months. It fails to appropriately restructure the military, ignores a large section of the population, grants Saleh immunity instead of serving justice and provides for elections that allow only one pre-determined winner.
On the day of the signature, confusion loomed in Yemen and mixed feelings surfaced in the streets of the capital.
Some expressed hope that this signature would save Yemen from economic and humanitarian collapse, others expressed happiness because “this dictator was forced to sign and relinquish his power to the vice president, and the JMP and the youth” said Ahmed, a member of the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Party (JMP).
Not everyone shares Ahmed’s enthusiasm. “I am not happy because we went to the street to demand an end to the regime and the current system, not just the removal of one man,” said Fatima al-Aghbary, protester and member of an independent youth coalition. Many protesters echoed Fatima’s worries, expressing feelings of betrayal and deep disappointment with the JMP.
At the outset of the demonstrations, groups representing most of the pro-democracy coalitions at the square came up with a list of demands. At the top of the list articulated by the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) in March is the “removal of the current regime peacefully and removal of all its figures and all members of the President’s family and his relatives from all leadership posts in the military and civil institutions.”
The GCC implementing mechanism is imperfect, but from a diplomatic standpoint is an acceptable solution. While it is a compromise between the different formal political parties in Yemen, it is also a good compromise for foreign countries that have interests in the country – mainly Saudi Arabia and the United States. Supporting the GCC mechanism means that both countries can show some support for the democracy movement, but at the same time maintain an old system that is beneficial to both Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Saudi Arabia is not keen on seeing independent civic youth take leadership, as this pro-democracy movement could spill over into neighboring Saudi Arabia. The United States on the other hand, has a deep relationship with the current government due to its counter-terrorism unit and the “war on terror,” and therefore would not want to see that relationship disappear.
Given the complexity of interests involved in Yemen it is no wonder the plan contains many vague stipulations that could be interpreted in various ways.
One of the main problems in Yemen is family/tribal control over the military and security apparatus, which therefore provides that family/tribe total control over state resources. For example, the son of the president heads the Republican Guards and the Special Counter-terrorism Forces; the nephew of the president controls the Central Security Forces; and the president’s brother controls the Air Force.
It should come as no surprise then, that the democracy movement called for a restructuring of the military as a means to end the military/family dictatorship. The movement demands: “Dissolving the political security forces and national security forces, and forming a new national security agency under the umbrella of the Ministry of Interior,” in addition to, “merging the Republican Guards with the military forces, and dissolving the national defense council to ensure full impartiality of the army and security forces.”
According to the GCC implementing mechanism, the new government will appoint a committee to “restructure” the security forces, including the army, the police and the intelligence services, headed by VP Hadi. While this sounds great in theory, it remains unclear what powers this committee will have to make real reforms, especially since it is very unlikely that Hadi will be able to push for these reforms, as he is considered to be weak and uninfluential.
More worrisome, is that there is no clear stipulation that bans the son or nephews of the president from remaining in their posts. In addition, any recommendation to remove government forces will also mean the need to remove Ali Mohsin, the “defected” military General, from his post. This could either lead to renewed military clashes between the two sides, or the restoration of an old friendship between Ali Mohsin and the Saleh clan as the only way for both camps to stay in power.
The day after the signing, large billboards appeared in the streets of Sana’a, showing Saleh and his son Ahmed, in military uniform, by his side. The text on the billboard reads: “You raised your son very well, that is why he will always remain by your side.” These billboards are an indication of the future plan to keep the son in his sensitive and powerful position.
The extent to which the committee is able to restructure the security forces and the military, will lead to the same extent of real change in Yemen. If these security forces are not dissolved, or merged into one national security agency, then the shadow of Saleh and the system he created will continue to rule the country.
Lack of inclusion
The GCC initiative and mechanism only addressed the formal political parties, and disregarded those who were the fuel for the mass people’s revolution: the youth. It also overlooked the powerful political groups with wide grassroots support, such as the Houthis and the southern secessionists. Since these important groups were not part of the discussion, they naturally do not feel ownership of it, and therefore feel that it is not binding for them.
These groups will most likely also be excluded from the unity government that divides seats between the JMP and the ruling party. In addition, since the JMP is made up of different political parties, it is unclear to which extent parties other than the dominant Islamist Islah party, will be represented.
In addition, although the mechanism indicates that “national dialogue” will take place with the presence of youth, women, Houthis and southern secessionists, it is unclear whether a new government that is seen as illegitimate will be able to mediate such talks. There might be a need for an honest broker in the middle to carry such a heavy burden. This might be a place where independents can fill the gap.
Women on the other hand were mentioned very briefly in the implementing mechanism, despite the fact that they were part of the revolution from the beginning. The mechanism states that women should have “appropriate representation” in the new government. The vagueness of the term “appropriate” will create widespread debate, and of course the interpretation will differ from group to group.
Women’s groups need to push for real representation at the decision making level and to be part of all the important committees, including the constitutional committee.
Immunity clause v. justice
After the deaths and injuries of hundreds of peaceful protesters and civilians, the immunity clause given to Saleh and his close allies feels like “a slap in the face” says Ali, a 19-year-old protester. The immunity clause violates the youth’s demand that seeks to “legally pursue and prosecute corrupt officials that caused, assisted and incited the killing and injuries of peaceful protesters.” From a diplomatic standpoint, the immunity clause was a necessary compromise in order for Saleh to agree to sign.
The immunity clause not only goes against the demands of the people, and against human rights, but it’s also a dangerous precedent to set in a society that will take matters into its own hands if justice is not served.
Realizing such inherent dangers, the implementing mechanism tried to address this concern by emphasizing the creation of a national commission for human rights, charged with investigating individual complaints regarding human rights violations and compensating victims.
But despite multiple redrafts the rights commission was excluded from the final agreement. With no court to intervene, the families of victims of violence such as the March 18 sniper attacks on peaceful Sana’a protesters, resulting in 50 deaths, will feel alienated. Finding no legal means to seek justice, the victims and their families may take matters into their own hands. In a society with a tradition of revenge, this could stir a cycle of retribution leading to years of war.
The upcoming election scheduled for February 21 will be a grand show to mark the beginning of a new phase. But the new phase will begin with a flawed process – an uncontested election. Both the JMP and the ruling General People’s Council (GPC) agreed in the implementing mechanism to accept one candidate: Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, in order to move past the political deadlock.
Of course many different electoral systems exist, but this one-person election will naturally not sit well with the Yemeni people. As elections imply a way for an electorate to select someone among multiple candidates for office, the upcoming “election” is more of an “appointed” post rather than an election.
Having an election might emphasize the importance of a process. However when the process is a failed one, wouldn’t that legitimize an illegitimate process? It is precisely for this reason that some independent youth are deciding whether to select another candidate for the elections, even if it is just a symbolic move.
A legally binding signature may not be enough to ensure that elections will be conducted in a timely fashion. It is not beyond question that Saleh, or the people around him, may continue to create conflict either to postpone elections, to prolong his stay, or to make sure his son remains in a powerful post. Also problematic is that the GCC implementing mechanism places a lot of importance on one person: Abd Rabu Hadi Mansour. What if he suddenly dies, or is killed? Will both sides be able to agree on another candidate? Will elections be postponed indefinitely?
While the GCC implementing mechanism has some important stipulations, it should be placed in a context where the rule of law is absent, and implementation is often lacking. In the absence of an independent judiciary, who will monitor the implementation? Time will unravel the answers to the many questions that still remain.
Despite all these imperfections, Saleh has legally signed away his political career. It is up to the people in the street to make sure that happens, and to continue to push for broad changes. Independent groups should form pressure groups to monitor the implementation of the mechanism and to put pressure on the new transitional unity government.
The hope for Yemen is that the independent civic groups will organize to become the third voice in order to bring true democracy to Yemen.
Atiaf Alwazir is a Yemeni researcher & blogger based in Sana’a