Triage for a Fracturing Yemen
Triage for a Fracturing Yemen
The Conflict in Yemen Is More Than a Proxy War
The Conflict in Yemen Is More Than a Proxy War
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 16 minutes

Triage for a Fracturing Yemen

Nearly a year after former President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed a transition agreement, Yemen risks significant localized violence and territorial fragmentation. While politicians and the international community in the capital prepare for national dialogue, Zaydi rebels, known as the Houthis, and Salafi fighters associated with the Islamist party, Islah, are positioning for further skirmishes in the North. Already, clashes during the last months have killed dozens of people and inflammatory rhetoric by both sides is a harbinger of violence to come. In the South, separatist sentiment remains high and there is no agreement on how to effectively include the southern movement, a loose and divided coalition calling for immediate southern independence or at a minimum greater autonomy, into the dialogue process. Attacks by al Qaeda and its local affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, are on the rise, with assassinations of over 60 military-security personnel in 2012 alone. The minister of defense has escaped assassination on at least six different occasions.

Long festering economic and humanitarian crises undergird and feed instability. Across the country, average citizens have seen far too little improvement in their daily lives since the new government took control in February. In the short term, pledges from the Riyadh conference and the Friends of Yemen meeting in New York, worth nearly $8 billion, offer hope of improvements to come. Yet, there is valid concern that, as in 2006, only a small fraction of the pledges will be disbursed. Equally worrisome is the lack of absorptive capacity, which has only been augmented by the destruction and looting of government offices in 2011; a continued political gridlock in 2012; and haphazard changes to the bureaucracy based on political affiliations. 

All of this is not to say that Yemen is doomed to a Somalia-like scenario. Indeed, the country's politicians successfully avoided a potentially bloody civil war in 2011 and forged a unique path out of its version of the so-called Arab Spring. The transition agreement signed between the former ruling party and an opposition bloc offers a chance for an inclusive national dialogue to address long-standing grievances and to reform institutions. However, this outcome is far from guaranteed and immediate action is needed to reduce political tensions, build trust between stakeholders, and halt centrifugal dynamics from pulling the country toward conflict and fragmentation.

In 2011, the country avoided a possible civil war though an elite compromise known as the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) initiative. At its core, the agreement offered the former president domestic immunity from prosecution in exchange for his resignation. An accompanying United Nations-backed implementation mechanism added flesh to the bones by outlining a two-phase process whereby Saleh would first transfer power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, through non-contested elections. In phase two, President Hadi and the coalition government -- split evenly between the former ruling party, the General People's Congress (GPC), and the opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) -- would have two years to, among other things, restructure the military-security apparatus, address issues of transitional justice, and implement an inclusive national dialogue that would set the stage for drafting a new constitution before fresh elections are held in February 2014.

Nine months into phase two, the implementation scorecard is mixed. Elites in the capital have successfully hit major benchmarks, such as forming the coalition government, holding early presidential elections, and beginning preparations for the national dialogue, which is scheduled to start in mid-November but will likely be postponed. On more substantive issues, like improving the security climate, reducing tensions, unifying a divided military, and effectively running the central government, implementation has been problematic. In fact, while some progress has been made, the actions of spoilers, selective implementation of the agreement, and inflammatory political appointments are moving the country away from political compromise and toward renewed conflict. In short, elites are checking the boxes of implementation, while progress on the ground has been one step forward and two steps back.

Most international and domestic critique focuses on Saleh and his supporters as the main spoilers. There is no doubt that Saleh's continued presence in the country and active engagement in politics are significant impediments to political change and reconciliation. His presence is toxic as it inspires distrust and suspicion among former opposition groups as well as with Hadi and his supporters. However, in many ways, the former president has become a lightning rod for critique, drawing attention away from other spoilers and problems with the implementation process that are also undermining the goal of an inclusive, democratic transition.

Buttressing the country's fragile transition will require much more than halting violations from the Saleh side. Other potential spoilers, particularly the powerful General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, should be part of the equation. Much also depends on the ability of the current government and president to address demands of the population for security and basic services and to immediately reach out to marginalized groups, especially the southern movement (Hiraak), through confidence building measures. There is also a need to halt growing fears of blanket de-Salehfication within the military and civil service, which is fanning the flames of distrust and eroding confidence in a political compromise among entrenched elites.

Fair or not, many Yemenis look to Hadi to provide strategic vision and balance during the transitional period. While he still enjoys widespread support, partly because there is no alternative, his honeymoon period has expired and citizens are increasingly frustrated by the lack of vision and a leadership style that is too often repeating the mistakes of the past. 

Shifting the political trajectory away from further violence and toward a successful national dialogue requires immediate action on four main fronts: a return to basics; political inclusion; removing spoilers; and demonstrating a new leadership model.

First and foremost, the coalition government and president must refocus their attentions on security and economic recovery. It is difficult to overemphasize the sense of physical insecurity that permeates the country's most important cities, particularly Sanaa and Aden. Both cities are racked by al Qaeda attacks and growing criminality. Despite progress in removing rival military checkpoints, Sanaa remains a divided capital with Republican Guard forces dominating the South, Mohsen and Islah controlling Change Square and Sanaa University in the Northwest and the al-Ahmar tribesmen maintaining significant presence in Hasaba in the Northeast. The proliferation of armed tribesmen in the capital and the presence of military personnel in or near civilian areas is a constant reminder of the potential return to conflict. President Hadi rarely moves from his house and the prime minister conducts affairs of state from his home, sending a message of fear, apprehension, and government weakness to the population. 

It would be impossible for the transitional government to resolve all of the country's diverse and complex security challenges. However, they could prioritize security in Sanaa and Aden. Without a modicum of stability in these key cities, it is difficult to encourage confidence in the government or the transition process. As it stands, all major stakeholders have incentives to develop a plan B to protect themselves in anticipation of central government failure or further deterioration.

The government also desperately needs an emergency economic plan with clear priorities. The consensus government is divided, composed of rivals who will soon, if things go well, be competing in elections. It is unreasonable to expect agreement on medium or long-term development strategies. Yet, it is possible to prioritize basic service provision, particularly electricity and water, and the facilitation of humanitarian assistance to an increasingly food insecure population.

To date, this has not happened. Instead, politicians are busy with finger pointing and dividing the spoils of state. The GPC is playing the blame game, portraying itself as a victim of exclusionary politics and sometimes relishing its self-described role as the new opposition. For its part, the JMP is obsessed with locating instances of "old regime" interference and with placing its own loyalists in JMP controlled ministries, ostensibly so that they can avoid GPC interference. Most citizens simply want a modestly functioning government and a chance to start negotiations in the dialogue. They will likely blame all sides of the old party establishment, the GPC and the JMP, for failing to fulfill these basic requirements.

There have been some improvements in living standards and some ministers and technocrats are working to expand on these successes. Yet, the overall environment of zero-sum competition and a leadership void at the government level hampers these efforts. As such, improvements in services and security have been checkered and often depend on the individual will and influence of local leaders to gather support for their particular cities or areas. The southern city of Taiz, for example, has seen some improvement in both security and services because of the new governor's vision. The same is gradually happening for Sanaa city with the appointment of a new, results-oriented mayor. At the national level, however, an emergency strategy is missing. Instead, elites are picking over the emaciated carcass of the central government, meanwhile losing the rest of the country.

The GCC initiative was based on the spirit of "no victor, no vanquished" and the goal of broadening political participation through a national dialogue. Nearly a year into implementation, the political current is veering significantly from these principles. An atmosphere of fear and distrust permeates the political context and bodes poorly for effective dialogue. Reorienting the political climate toward greater inclusiveness hinges largely on two factors: implementing confidence-building measures aimed at marginalized groups, especially southerners, and assuaging fears of far-reaching de-Salehfication. Of the two, the former is most pressing.

Southern movement participation in the national dialogue is a "make or break" issue. Although participation from every group, or current, under the Hiraak umbrella is impossible, a critical mass of participants from the movement is an essential element for reaching a valid compromise on the structure of the state. Yet, Hiraak participation remains elusive.

The technical committee charged with preparing the agenda and procedures for the national dialogue has made concerted efforts to address this issue. They announced that the first priority of the dialogue will be the southern issue or, in effect, a debate over the structure of the state: unitary, federal, or some other model. The committee is considering equal representation of northerners and southerners on the southern issues sub-committee to account for southern fears that their smaller population will dilute their voice in final decision-making. This same committee called on the government to implement 20 confidence-building measures to prepare the political climate for an effective dialogue, about half of which are targeted at the south.

The technical committee is doing its job, but it needs the support of the president, the government, and the political parties to build a supportive environment for dialogue. To date, this has not happened. Thus far, not one of the technical committee's confidence building measures has been implemented on the ground. Granted, some requests are complex and would take considerable time, such as fully resolving land disputes or addressing illegal dismissals from public sector employment following the 1994 civil war between the North and South. However, the current government has not begun forming committees to begin addressing these issues, nor has it taken advantage of low hanging fruit, such as implementing steps to re-open the South's most prominent independent newspaper, al Ayyam, which has been closed since 2009 following an attack on its offices by the central government on suspicion of supporting separatists.   

By contrast, some actions of the government seem to have aggravated tensions. For example, Hadi's appointment of an Islahi governor in Aden angered Hiraak supporters who view Islah as a northern-oriented party opposed to southern interests. Regardless of the governor's personal record, party affiliation prevents him from playing a conciliatory and unifying role. In addition, the Ramadan presidential decree adding five Islah affiliates to the technical committee harmed potential outreach to southerners who expected new appointments to eventually come from the Hiraak.

With separatist sentiment strong and virtually no action from the central government to demonstrate a new political era, it is difficult for leaders associated with the Hiraak to participate. Even so, some moderates who are open to a federal option are likely to send representatives. Confidence building measures would facilitate their participation. This group only represents a small portion of the Hiraak and many of them are associated with Abyan governorate, where Hadi has some influence. However, it is not clear that their participation alone will facilitate adequate buy-in. Tangible confidence building measures could open political space to gain and sustain participation from a wider array of Hiraak affiliates.

While the southern issue is most pressing, other confidence-building efforts are also needed to bolster the Houthis' tenuous commitment to national dialogue. However, the parts of the government appear to be stoking the flames of conflict with this group as well. Hadi has appointed a ring of Islah affiliated governors around the Houthi stronghold of Saada. This unexpected and inflammatory political move has raised animosity and contributed to armed clashes between Islah and the Houthis in late September in Amran governorate. Now the Houthis are rhetorically beating the war drums. They maintain that the current government and Hadi are agents of the United States and relics of the old regime that are opposed to the goals of the revolution.

Beyond the need to assure marginalized groups of their place at the dialogue table and an eventual new political order, it is also important to recognize the dangers of excluding signatories to the GCC initiative. Following months of changes inside the bureaucracy and military, which have targeted not only Saleh's family, but also a wider range of sympathizers, many in the rank and file in the GPC are apprehensive.

The 2011 popular uprising provided a mandate for change, especially at senior leadership levels. Hadi's removal of Saleh's family and close supporters from top positions in the military and the public sector were within his constitutional rights and mandate. They were also necessary to buttress his authority and to signal a new mode of politics. Yet, changes at lower levels of the bureaucracy and military-security services are less defendable and arguably counterproductive in the absence of a stable political compromise and a clear reform plan.

Currently, a tremendous amount of apprehension centers on Islah gains inside the ministries of education, finance, electricity, planning and international cooperation, and interior, as well as new army recruits into General Mohsen's First Armored Division. Islah members defend changes as necessary to fulfill the goals of the revolution, to insure that their ministers can do their jobs effectively and to correct an overwhelming bias in favor of former or current GPC affiliates within the civil service and security sectors. These stated reasons have some resonance, but Islah's claim to represent the revolution is bitterly disputed by the independent youth, Houthis, Hiraak, and even some of its own partners in the JMP.

In this time of profound political uncertainly, party-motivated changes within the civil service and security services are part of the problem, not the solution. Not only are these changes often violating existing civil service laws, but they are creating an atmosphere of fear that is encouraging actors like the Salehs, the Houthis, and the Hiraak to develop contingency plans to defend themselves when political negotiation fails. Islah gains at the expense of the GPC are to some extent strengthening residual support for hardliners in the GPC who argue that Islah is bent on exclusion of others. Ultimately, Islah's intentions should be tested in the context of its performance in government. Yet, until now, citizens have not had a chance to choose new political institutions or vote on a new government.

The current government is not the torchbearer of the revolution. It is an emergency transitional compromise forged to enable deeper changes. Until Islah, or any other party, wins in competitive elections, its mandate for far-reaching change is bounded. For now, the best solution is to fully implement the existing civil service laws. These laws, particularly those governing hiring qualifications, rotations, and investigation of corruption, allow for change that, while slower, will arguably be more durable and in line with popular desire to strengthen rule of law and professionalism.

One of the most important flaws of the GCC agreement was its failure to remove Saleh and his long-time partner, Mohsen, from politics. Removing these two men would not magically solve Yemen's problems. Both have networks of loyalty and influence that would endure even if they were required to remain out of the country for the transition. Yet, Yemenis from across the political spectrum are convinced that their exit from political life would at a minimum build confidence and provide the new president more latitude for constructive decision-making. There are arguments for a longer list of spoilers leaving the country to include Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali, or the powerful Islahi sheikh, Hamid al-Ahmar. But the least common denominator for the majority of Yemenis, with the exception of those close to Saleh and Mohsen, is that these two senior figures are the most deeply entrenched and significant obstacles to building trust and achieving reforms. The first discussions of regime change in March 2011 started with a proposal by Saleh for both Alis to exit the country. With the transition veering toward renewed conflict and mired in competition between old political parties and politicians, maybe it is time to revisit the merits of this first proposal. The two Alis need to go.

Hadi is in an unenviable position. He assumed the presidency after 33 years of seeing Saleh work to consolidate power around his family and close supporters. At the same time, Saleh's former partner and now rival, Mohsen, retains his position as commander of the First Armored Division and the Northwest Regional Command. In contrast to these men, Hadi has virtually no pre-existing base of support in the army, the government, the GPC, or in the North's complex tribal system of allegiances. He came to power with international support and through a popular referendum in which Yemenis voted not so much for him as for an exit from crisis. The president retains a reservoir of good will from citizens hoping for peaceful change. Yet, the honeymoon period has ended and there is growing concern that his leadership style is too often repeating the mistakes of the past.

First, many are frustrated that Hadi too heavily favors his family, tribe, and region to the exclusion of others. One of the central grievances against Saleh was that he concentrated power and wealth in the hands of his family and that he intended to transfer authority to his son, Ahmed. Now, a common complaint is that Yemen has moved from the Sanhanization of the state (Sanhan is Saleh's tribal area) to the Abyanization of the state (Abyan is Hadi's home governorate).

Indeed, Abyan and the adjoining governorate of Shebwa play prominently in Hadi's civilian and military appointments. Critique, however, is not removed from the harsh reality of political survival. Yemenis are patient and recognize Hadi's need to defend himself. As such, there are no grumblings against the president's selection of an Abyan commander to control his personal protection detail. Nor do Yemenis question the recruitment of soldiers from Hadi's home region to staff this protection unit. Personal security is understandable; however, when staffing other powerful positions, many would like to see the president avoid regional favoritism, or at least to explain his choices, based on qualifications. Understandably, there is also growing resentment of the prominent role Hadi's son is playing as a gatekeeper for the president.

Others are concerned that Hadi's moves to clip the wings of Saleh and his family have unintentionally, or as a product of a tactical alliance, strengthened the hand of Mohsen and his allies in Islah. Comparatively speaking, Mohsen has been harmed far less than the Saleh side in the military reshuffling and, thus far, he has arguably gained strength. His forces guard the president's house, he has recruited at least 10,000 soldiers since the uprising, and he is thought to have significant influence in presidential decisions, such as the appointment of Islah affiliated governors in the North. For independents, the Houthis, the Hiraak, the GPC, and even some in the JMP, Mohsen is a dangerous pillar of the old regime whose continued influence bodes poorly for genuine reform and is a reminder of how little has changed.

Regarding the South, there are serious questions surrounding the president's lack of action to implement confidence-building measures. Moreover, his preference for the Abyan and Shebwa regional bloc through presidential appointments frustrates southerners from other areas and could aggravate historic tensions between Abyan and Shebwa and their historic rivals in Dalia and Lahj governorates.

Finally, as it was under Saleh, there is a lack of transparency in Hadi's decision-making process and an unwillingness or inability to communicate a strategic vision for reform. Arguably, even more than Saleh, Hadi's consultative circles are narrow and there is limited communication with stakeholders over the direction of change.

Ultimately, too much may be riding on Hadi's shoulders. Even the one institution that could have provided a check on his unprecedented decision-making authorities under the GCC initiative, the interpretation committee, has not been formed. Moving forward Hadi still has an opportunity to refine his leadership style and grow his popular support base through a different mode of politics. Yemenis are not expecting a total break with the past in this precarious environment. However, they are rejecting a repeat of the past. By forming the interpretation committee, communicating a clear vision for change during this remaining term, explaining his appointments based on qualifications and avoiding, when possible, the perception of regional or party bias, Hadi could play a pivotal role in calming fears and facilitating an inclusive political compromise.

Yemen avoided civil war; now the hard work of inclusion and compromise begins. While the situation is dire, the transition agreement provides a framework for avoiding a slide into conflict. However, such a slide could become a reality if political constituencies inside and outside of Yemen do not immediately move to facilitate a genuinely inclusive political compact to address competing political agendas. In the absence of such a compact, violent devolution and fragmentation is still on the horizon.

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