The international spotlight alighted, then lingered, on Yemen this past week. On 21 October—the day after the capture and then death of Libya’s Qadhafi—the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling on Yemen’s Present President Saleh to accept a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered deal to relinquish his 33-year hold on power. Days later, a ceasefire was announced between loyalist troops and the breakaway 1st Armored Division of President Saleh’s erstwhile friend and ally General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar.
President Saleh has repeatedly said he would step down, as recently as the day of the Security Council resolution
We have been here before. While President Saleh was recovering in Saudi Arabia from an assassination attempt in early June, a tense and uneasy calm prevailed in Yemen as opposing forces waited to see the response of their intransigent leader to mounting pressure from his Saudi hosts and US benefactors to give up power and remain exiled. President Saleh’s return to the capital Sana’a in late September was greeted with dismay in the region and abroad and fighting immediately resumed with renewed intensity. From an international perspective, the escalation of the Yemen conflict was quickly overshadowed by the battle for Sirte in Libya and the mounting violence in Syria. Five weeks later, however, Libya has been declared liberated, Tunisian elections have been praised as free and fair, and Egyptian elections are on schedule for next month. The world is wondering anew where Yemen’s Arab Spring is heading.
The ceasefire is surely positive, but is not in itself a step towards resolving the conflict. A positive step would entail resurrecting the GCC deal, which remains the only proposal on the table.
So what is the GCC plan? In simple terms, the deal transfers power from President Saleh to his deputy until a new government can be elected, and offers the former president immunity from prosecution as an inducement. The plan has been around since April and President Saleh had already rejected it three times before injuries sustained in a bomb attack on the Presidential compound on 3 June forced him to seek treatment Riyadh. But even then, President Saleh retained office and appointed Vice-President Abd Al-Rab Mansur Al-Hadi as acting President during his temporary absence. Since returning to Sana’a, President Saleh has repeatedly said he would step down, as recently as the day of the Security Council resolution. On that occasion he spoke of unspecified guarantees by the GCC, EU, and US. Coming the day after Qadhafi’s public humiliation and apparent execution, this is perhaps not unexpected.
The GCC plan is neat in its simplicity, but raises many problems too. For one, it is difficult to imagine how Yemen can organize credible elections when one of the galvanizing factors of the initial uprising was government incompetence and corruption. At the same time, there is plenty to suggest the forces arraigned against President Saleh lack common objectives beyond deposing their ruler of 33 years, and more generally lacks the kind of unity of purpose of opposition movements in other theatres of the Arab Spring.
So who are the opposition? The main grouping Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) is dominated by the Islamist grouping Al-Islah and the south’s Yemeni Socialist Party. Also in the mix is the Hashid tribal federation that came out in support of protestors in April, although some observers think their interests are more commercial than political.
Also significant in this mix are the Houthi in the north-west, whose conflict with President Saleh goes back to 2004. The Houthi’s tentative alliance with anti-Saleh protestors early in the uprising foundered on subsequent conflicts between Sunni Islah and Shi’ite Houthis, underlining another faultline in the factious movement against President Saleh’s government.
Then there is General Ali Mohsen’s 1st Armored Division. Following their mutiny in May, they have supported the protestors, encircling Sana’a’s Change Square and fending off attacks by army loyalists and government snipers. Although the ceasefire has upped the General’s political capital by casting him as President Saleh’s counterpart in the opposition movement, support for the general among the different opposition groups is difficult to ascertain, but is likely as uneven as the alliance of opposition groups is irregular.
Nevertheless, if President President Saleh’s days are numbered, as they surely are, then the growing importance of General Ali Mohsen suggests a scenario similar to Egypt where the military’s loyalty is sorely tested before cutting loose the state’s greatest liability in order to salvage the republic. That scenario is still some ways off, not least because President President Saleh has ensured the army’s loyalty by appointing army commanders close to him, generally by blood or tribal relation.
In the background there remains concern about the threat of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who have been keen to consolidate their gains amid the growing disorder. The assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki in a US drone strike in late September underscored this threat, and justifies the perception that for gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, the Yemen crisis is a national security issue more than a foreign policy one.
What comes next for Yemen hinges on whether these divergent interests can be coordinated towards a common objective.