After months of uncertainty about Ali Abdullah Saleh’s sincerity to step down from his post as Yemen’s president, he was confirmed on 22 January 2012 to have left the country to seek medical treatment in the US. Under a deal brokered by the GCC, with UN, US, and UK assistance, Saleh is barred from standing in elections for an interim president scheduled for 21 February 2012. In “exchange”, he received immunity as confirmed in an unamendable, but nationally and internationally highly controversial law passed by Yemen’s parliament the day before his departure. 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, eerily reminiscent of the last time when 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 as president to Sana’a at the end of September.
The different terms of Saleh’s departure now may be considered another success of the Arab Spring-the fourth leader after Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to be forced from office-but in Yemen more so than in these other three cases this will not mean an immediate improvement of the situation in the country. Much like in Egypt and Tunisia, those that initiated the protests against Saleh’s regime a year ago, are likely to be marginalised in the power struggle that will follow his departure. And much like in Libya, the best that can be said about the political opposition to Saleh is that the forces in the Joint Meeting Parties are “united” against the old regime, rather than for a shared vision of a new Yemen. This is, of course, compounded by defections from, and divisions within, the regime and its security forces, as well as the ready availability of weapons in the country.
Yet in contrast to any other of the Arab Spring countries, Yemen’s crises did not begin, nor will they end with, regime change in a sense similar to what Tunisia and Egypt, and arguably Libya, have experienced to date. Yemen’s crises go much deeper than socio-economic and political dissatisfaction. The country has been beset by two insurgencies: 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, gained violent momentum from 2007 onwards. Both insurgencies share similar grievances of political marginalisation and economic neglect by Sana’a. The situation in the north is additionally destabilised by significant Saudi interests and past military operations against a Shi’ite rebellion with alleged support from Iran (doubtful though as it may be in its significance). In the south, a significant and growing presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) 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 of 25 December 2009 against Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. Saudi and broader international concerns about the growth of AQAP’s influence date back to August 2009 when a suicide bomb attack on Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi crown prince in charge of counter-terrorism, narrowly missed its target.
Against this background of a heightened terrorist threat from Yemen, the “Friends of Yemen” group of states gathered in London in January 2010 to discuss the situation in the country and to coordinate an international response to it. Despite a flurry of activity in 2010 and despite the fact that the vision of stabilising Yemen was relatively comprehensive, focusing on social, political, economic, and security problems alike, progress towards stability in Yemen has not been in much evidence since the inception of the group two years ago. That said, stability in Yemen remains the primary objective of Western engagement with the country, which, while at the (geographical) periphery of the highly volatile Arab Middle East, also connects that region to the equally volatile east African crisis region around Somalia from where it received around 100,000 migrants last year alone.
Saleh’s departure from the presidency nonetheless marks a significant juncture in Yemen’s political developments and thus presents a window of opportunity for change. However, the formal transitional period to begin after the February presidential elections will be marred by a large number of difficulties. Politically, reaching agreement on a new constitution will prove a major challenge as conflicting views on the structure of the political institutions, the territorial organisation of the state, the role of religion, and the future of members and supporters of the old regime will have to be sustainably reconciled. Economically, the country has struggled for years with declining hydrocarbon reserves, 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/secular, geographical, tribal, and cultural divides and are unlikely to decrease amid probable further political instability and economic decline. Nor should one dismiss the danger of an already volatile security situation to escalate: fears of an imminent civil war may be overstated, but the multiple threats from northern and southern insurgents and from AQAP, the shifting alliances among them and between them and other domestic allies and external backers must not be underestimated.
The key priorities for whatever shape and form the engagement of the Friends of Yemen (or a similar international forum) may take must therefore be to work with all political forces in Yemen to prevent an outbreak of major violence as they compete for power and influence in the country, to contain and delimit the threat of AQAP, and to initiate a process of economic stabilisation and recovery. This will require sustained and well-resourced attention from the international community to Yemen-a tall order at the best of times, but especially so in the context of a continuing global economic and financial crisis, heightened tensions across the Middle East (with major flashpoints in the Persian Gulf, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iraq), and presidential elections in the US.
Yemen’s prospects after Saleh’s departure from the presidency may thus have improved, but they are still far from good. The domestic and international management of Yemen’s crises therefore needs to set itself realistic objectives: preventing further crisis escalation would already be a significant achievement. Yet, such realism mustn’t make us lose sight of the fact that it was the pro-democracy movement among an economically and politically disillusioned young generation in Yemen that triggered the events that led to Saleh being forced from power. And while democracy may not be a panacea for Yemen’s multiple crises nor be immediately attainable, Yemen’s future without democracy will be a mirror image of its recent past, and quite possibly worse.