Ali Abdullah Saleh’s autocratic rule in Yemen comes to an end on 21 February 2012 after 33 years as a new interim president is elected in the country which remains deeply fragile and divided. The outcome of these elections is as predictable as it is certain that they are at best the beginning of a difficult transition period. Yemen stands out as the only country of the Arab Spring so far that has seen a negotiated transition, albeit not one free from violence.
Yemen also stands out in yet another way as a country whose crises go much deeper than the socio-economic and political dissatisfaction that primarily drove the Arab Spring elsewhere. Two insurgencies in the north and south, the latter additionally complicated by internal schisms within the southern movement, and a threatening and growing presence of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) are part of this complex picture. Moreover, the volatile security situation in Yemen, including a split in the country’s armed forces and the proliferation of tribal and other militias in a country awash with arms, has significant regional and international implications, and thus a number of external players have a stake and taken an interest in Yemen’s future, above all Saudi Arabia and the United States. To complicate matters further, recent reports indicate increasing concern with Iranian involvement in the country as well.
All this poses huge challenges for the transition process that is to follow the presidential elections. A national dialogue, mandated in the GCC transition plan, and most likely to be facilitated by the UN not only offers an opportunity for fundamental constitutional reform but indeed requires it if Yemen is to survive as a country, let alone have any prospects for sustainable social, economic, and political recovery.
Five key tasks need to be accomplished in the national dialogue:
First, the territorial structure of the state in Yemen needs to undergo fundamental reform. Insurgents in the north and south are unlikely to accept a continuation of a highly centralised state. Their vision of a more federal Yemen, however, is not universally popular across the whole country, and difficult negotiations lie ahead on how to keep Yemen united while giving Southerners and the al-Houthis in the North greater levels of meaningful self-governance.
Second, holding Yemen together and creating the prospect of a sustainable political process without violence will also require reforms of the institutions of central government. This concerns among others the composition and powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and the relationship between them. The direction and outcome of this particular reform process will determine how transparent and accountable politics in Yemen will be in the future and it will shape the incentives that the insurgents will perceive to lay down their arms and engage politically with the centre.
Third, because of the growing number of armed factions all with their own particular loyalties to almost anything and anyone but the state, restructuring of the military and security forces is another key challenge for the national dialogue. In a situation of prolonged and heightened insecurity for individuals and communities, the key dilemma is that many will be unwilling to give up their arms and trust the ability of the state to provide for their safety, but without such trust the state will not be able to restore even a modicum of law and order as recent events in Libya illustrate only too vividly.
Foruth,while Yemen’s natural resource wealth has been dwindling over the years, wealth and revenue sharing will be another issue that the national dialogue will have to confront. Most of the country’s oil resources are located in the south, water shortages are a serious problem for the country’s agricultural sector, and without sincere efforts at equitable economic development across the whole country, recovery and continued unity will be difficult to accomplish.
Fifth, but by no means least, the transition process will need to acknowledge Yemen’s diversity and establish credible and enforceable guarantees for the rights and identities of individual citizens and groups. This is perhaps most easily accomplished on paper but will pose a tough challenge in implementation as it requires the acknowledgement and toleration of religious, political, and cultural differences.
These substantive challenges within a future national dialogue are “complemented” by equally difficult procedural issues. The true success of a negotiated transition in Yemen will not only depend on the country’s new constitution but also on who will participate in shaping it. The many divisions within the country, almost equally reflected in its diaspora, are one factor to be considered. Similarly important, however, are the interests of outside stakeholders. It may seem cynical, but Yemen’s transition will not conclude with a happy ending unless outside interests are taken into account and external players’ red lines not crossed: Saudi Arabia will be equally wary of too much decentralisation and too strong a central government, the US and its western partners will want to see credible and effective counter-terrorism efforts against AQAP. And the likely significant role of the UN in the national dialogue will require Russian and Chinese acquiescence in the Security Council.
The national dialogue in Yemen, thus, faces a multitude of serious challenges and there is a wide range of potential spoilers inside and outside the country. That said, the national dialogue also is Yemen’s perhaps only chance at negotiating a transition. The alternative of a prolonged civil war should be unpalatable enough for Yemenis and their international partners to try their very best to make a success of it.