Opinion

The Great Debate

Yemen needs an insurgent democracy

By Stefan Wolff
January 24, 2012

After months of uncertainty around whether Ali Abdullah Saleh has been sincere about stepping down from his post as Yemen’s president, Sunday brought confirmation that he has left the country to seek medical treatment in the United States. Under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council with United Nations, United States and United Kingdom assistance, Saleh is barred from partaking in the Feb. 21 elections for an interim president. In exchange, he received immunity in an unamendable law — both nationally and internationally highly controversial — passed by Yemen’s parliament the day before his departure.

And yet Saleh made it immediately clear that he intended to return to Yemen before the elections to lead his General People’s Congress party, which holds a majority of seats in parliament. This is, of course, somewhat reminiscent of the last time Saleh left Yemen for medical treatment in June 2011. Following a bomb attack on the presidential palace which left several senior government officials dead and Saleh and others seriously injured, he sought treatment in Saudi Arabia amid hopes he would step down from office. He returned to Sana’a as president at the end of September. While Saleh will not be able to hold this office again, his intention of continuing to play a major role in the future of Yemen taints the otherwise good news of his departure.

But now what? We’ve seen leaders who had desperately tried to hold on forced from power in Arab countries before. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was run out of Tunisia. Hosni Mubarak, under withering domestic and international pressure, stepped down from Egypt’s presidency. And Muammar Gaddafi wouldn’t leave and was finally killed.

Yemen, though, is different. Its crisis goes much deeper than socioeconomic and political dissatisfaction. It has insurgencies to worry about.

There are two: the al-Houthi uprising in the north since 2004 and the increasingly secessionist rebellion in the south that, while tracing its origins back to the brief 1994 north-south civil war, has gained violent momentum from 2007 onwards. Both insurgencies are reactions to political marginalization and economic neglect by Sana’a.

But these insurgencies have telling differences. The situation in the north has been destabilized by past military operations against a Shi’ite rebellion that allegedly received support from Iran (doubtful as it may be in its significance). For years on-and-off fighting had seen little gain for either side until the government launched operation “Scorched Earth” in 2009. That push involved Saudi forces, but the insurgency, although reduced in strength, continued. To date, a number of ceasefire agreements have been signed, and broken, most recently in 2010.

In the south, meanwhile, a battle with secessionist forces is complicated by the significant and growing presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This fight has garnered significant international attention, not least because of two failed international terrorist plots that originated in Yemen — the attempt to bring down airplanes with explosives hidden in printer toner cartridges in October 2010 and the Christmas Day bombing plot in 2009. The alliance between AQAP and the southern secessionists, however, is one of convenience above all else. The southern movement is deeply divided among different factions and has limited military capabilities. It thus relies to an extent on AQAP to challenge the regime without sharing the terrorist network’s religious fundamentalism or anti-Western agenda. For the regime, southern secession is unacceptable given that most of Yemen’s dwindling oil resources are located there. Internationally, too, there is broad support for Yemen’s unity and a fear that instability in the south will further enable and embolden AQAP.

Even without Saleh, these insurgencies will continue — and so will all of Yemen’s other ills. Economically, the country has struggled for years with declining oil reserves and serious water shortages, high unemployment, and the consequences of immigration, emigration, and transmigration. Social tensions between different segments of Yemen’s society overlap and cut across existing political, religious, geographical, tribal, and cultural divides, and are unlikely to decrease amid further political instability and economic decline. One also shouldn’t dismiss the danger that an already volatile security situation will escalate. Fears of an imminent civil war may be overstated, but the multiple threats from northern and southern insurgents and from AQAP must not be underestimated.

You try reaching an agreement on a new constitution with all that swirling around.

The key priorities for international engagement in support of Yemen, then, are threefold:

  1. Work with all political forces in Yemen to prevent an outbreak of major violence as they compete for power and influence in the country.
  2. Contain the threat of AQAP.
  3. Initiate a process of economic stabilization and recovery.

Yemen’s prospects after Saleh’s departure from the presidency may have improved, but they are still far from good. The domestic and international management of Yemen’s crises needs to be realistic. Preventing further crisis escalation would already be a significant achievement. Yet such realism must not make us lose sight of the fact that it was the pro-democracy movement across an economically and politically disillusioned young generation in Yemen that forced Saleh from power.

Democracy is the best chance Yemen has to accommodate the demands of the insurgencies in the north and south of the country. This will require true leadership on the part of the new government, a readiness on all sides, including the insurgencies, to make serious compromises, and international support to stabilize the country and improve people’s lives. Democracy may not be a panacea for Yemen’s multiple crises, but a Yemen without democracy in its future will be no different than the Yemen of the recent past.

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