Yemen's Stalemate

Yemen seems trapped in an endless political stalemate. More than a year after massive protests erupted challenging the 33 year old regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen seems no closer to achieving a meaningful political transition. The deadlock has persisted despite the outrage over regime violence against civilians, splits at the top of the military, a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence and calling for a transfer of power, a Nobel Peace Prize for leading Yemeni protest figure Tawakkol Karman, and the near assassination of Saleh himself. In the absence of a political solution, the humanitarian situation has dramatically worsened and regional conflicts across the country have intensified. Is there any hope for Yemen?

On Wednesday, January 25, from 12:30-2:00 pm, I will be hosting a POMEPS panel discussion at the Elliott School of International Affairs on Yemen's political stalemate, featuring three political scientists with deep experience in Yemen and very different specializations: Stacey Yadav, Sheila Carapico, and Laurent Bonnefoy.  When I chose the title "Yemen's Stalemate" for the panel a few months ago, several people commented that this seemed gloomy. I would have loved to have been proven wrong, but here we are. I hope many of you can attend; a video of the event will be posted later. The post which follows is the introductory essay to POMEPS Briefing #8: Yemen's Stalemate, which can be downloaded here

There is no doubting the astonishing resilience, creativity and courage of the Yemeni protest movement. The protestors gathered in Sanaa's Change Square, including Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman, represent some of the best and most inspirational of the activists of this past year's Arab uprisings. It is astounding that they have maintained their energy and kept up their numbers despite massive regime brutality and dim hopes of political success. But they have also struggled to put forth a clear political alternative, and as Stacey Yadav has argued, have been badly served both by the "opportunistic opposition" of tribal leaders and regime defectors and by the traditional opposition parties of the Joint Meetings Party (JMP). They have proven that they can not be silenced, but seem as stymied as anyone about how to break the deadlock. 

The poorly conceived transition plan pushed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and backed by the United States and the United Nations has proven to be an impediment to meaningful change. It offered immunity to Saleh as an inducement for his departure, but the Gulf states showed little interest in promoting any real democratic change. The GCC plan left the role of the armed forces and other state institutions untouched, and made no provisions for a genuine role for the protest movement. Even so, Saleh failed to sign the agreement for months, instead stalling for time and taking every opportunity to divide and weaken his opponents. In September he returned to Yemen unexpectedly and retook the reins of power.

Many hoped that Yemen would finally move forward when Saleh unexpectedly signed the GCC deal in late November. But instead, as most Yemenis and analysts expected, he has continued to exercise power from behind the scenes. He shows no sign of actually living up to the promise to depart the scene and allow Yemen to move on. The immunity from prosecution guaranteed to Saleh by the GCC deal -- and recently extended to all government officials who have served him -- outrages many Yemenis. It has provided neither justice nor a political transition. Instead it has rewarded a culture of impunity and given Saleh a blank check to kill.

The presidential elections slated to be held in February are widely seen as a sham, even if they are not postponed, wired to simply ratify the elevation of Vice President Abd Rab Mansour al-Hadi and maintain Saleh's power behind the scenes. Such elections do not seem likely to either satisfy the protestors or remove Saleh and his regime from real power. Saleh's family members remain entrenched in key positions in the security apparatus. Meanwhile, as Abdul Ghani al-Iryani noted in December, Saleh and his regime continue to stall, divide the opposition, and play on Western fears of al-Qaeda.

The costs of this political stalemate are enormous.  The mounting humanitarian crisis is reaching staggering proportions. Secessionist sentiment in the south is rising rapidly, while the Houthi rebellion in the north remains potent. Reports of al-Qaeda seizing strategic towns are likely exaggerated, but the jihadist organization is clearly taking advantage of the chaos to build its presence. Real power is devolving to the local level as the political center remains frozen. The absence of legitimate political institutions raises the risks of a complete collapse into civil war. 

The international community, including the United States, has only intermittently paid attention to Yemen -- an oversight which will haunt it for years to come. The U.S. too often has been focused on counterterrorism and the struggle against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to the exclusion of other issues. This has led too many officials to view Saleh as a necessary partner, rather than the key part of the problem which his regime is, and to trade off the right to carry out drone strikes for real pressure for political change.  Even where those tradeoffs are not consciously chosen, the sheer complexity of the problem and the crush of other regional crises has made it difficult for the U.S. or the international community to act.

In September, Tom Finn asked whether there was "any way out for Yemen." More than four months later, it is difficult to argue that we are any closer to achieving the meaningful political transition Yemen so desperately needs. At this point, Saleh should be given a deadline to leave Yemen or lose the amnesty promised by the GCC deal (the blanket immunity recently approved by the Yemeni cabinet for all government officials should be rejected completely). The assets of Saleh and regime officials should be frozen and a travel ban imposed until real change is achieved. But even such steps will not be enough without fashioning new Yemeni political institutions which can respond in a meaningful way to the demands and the needs of the protest movement and the diverse regional groups which have so powerfully challenged decades of Saleh's autocratic rule. Too much time has been lost already.


The Middle East Channel

Syrian army and opposition agree to a truce in Zabadani

Syrian army and opposition agree to a truce in Zabadani

After a reported two days of negotiating, Syrian regime forces and the opposition agreed to a ceasefire in the town of Zabadani, 19 miles north of Damascus, near Lebanon's border. The town has been a frequent site of large demonstrations and was attacked on Friday by troops and tanks in one of the biggest strikes since the beginning of the Arab League's observer mission in Syria. The ceasefire was brokered between President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, and town leaders. According to senior opposition leader, Kamal al-Labwani, the deal was sparked by "stiff resistance and defections among the attacking forces." However, one resident reported to the Associated Press that the Syrian army had broken the truce and resumed shelling. Meanwhile, the Arab League is debating continuing its operations in Syria after Assad said he would permit the mission to extend for a month. In a meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah II, U.S. President Barack Obama again called for Assad's regime to step down, saying there were "unacceptable levels of violence" in Syria.


  • Egyptian Field Marshal Tantawi has warned of "grave dangers" as the military plans for January 25 anniversary protests calling for a transfer to civilian rule. 
  • Israeli air forces and tanks attacked Palestinian men in Gaza suspected of planting a bomb along the Israeli border, killing one and wounding three.
  • Gunmen killed an Iraqi Sunni village chief and three of his sons who were part of the Sawha, the Awakening Council, that cooperated with the U.S. army to fight al-Qaeda linked militants.
  • Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal said he will step down during upcoming elections after proposing a change in direction to non-violent resistance.
  • A hearing for Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman began Tuesday over fraud and corruption charges.

Daily Snapshot

Tribal gunmen loyal to dissident tribal chief Sadiq al-Ahmar inspect the damage in a burnt out building as they withdraw from key government sites under the agreed security plan in the capital Sanaa, on January 17, 2012. The building was damaged during fighting last year between tribes men loyal to al-Ahmar and those soldiers loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images).

Arguments & Analysis

'Bahrain's Sunni Awakening' (Justin Gengler, Middle East Report online)

"There are signs that the social forces unleashed by the uprising, and the wider Arab awakening, have made Bahraini Sunnis more cognizant of their perennial position as political counterweight -- and more resistant to it. The same grassroots movements that rose in defense of the regime in February and March are now daring to articulate reform demands of their own, albeit not yet with a coherent purpose. Ever since the days when the Iranian revolution threatened to inundate the Arab Gulf with Islamic populism, Bahrain's rulers have raised that specter to win the reflexive support of ordinary Sunnis and to diffuse citizen pressure for a political opening. Ironically, it may be an upheaval initiated by Bahraini Shi‘a that hastens the end of this arrangement."

'Cairo loses its voice' (Mike Giglio, The Daily Beast)

"Once the revolution took hold, everyone from poets to punk rockers flocked to the cause. Egyptian graffiti gained global fame, and museums put together showcases of revolutionary art. The most popular song of the protest movement came from a struggling acoustic guitarist named Ramy Essam. He wrote the compilation of popular chants and some improvised lines in a few minutes from inside Tahrir. Banning Eyre, the music journalist who runs the radio series Afropop Worldwide, says the time was ripe for what he calls "people power" music. "You could record a song that was an expression of being free," he says. "It felt right.""

'Iran is finding fewer buyers for its oil' (David Ignatius, Washington Post)

"The squeeze is already beginning on Iran's oil exports - and guess which nation quietly reduced its purchases from Tehran this month. Why, that would be China, Iran's supposed protector. The Chinese cut their imports from Iran roughly in half for January, trimming 285,000 barrels per day from their average last year of about 550,000 barrels per day, according to Nat Kern, the publisher of Foreign Reports, a respected industry newsletter. Iran's reduced sales to its biggest oil customer resulted from a dispute over payment terms, Kern explains. But it's an early sign of what may be significant reductions in Iranian exports to Europe and Asia, as buyers there hedge against the likelihood of tighter sanctions."

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