Four reasons for anxiety about the Arab Spring's forgotten revolution.
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, stepping down from power after more than 10 months of protests led by youth activists and joined by a cross-section of opposition groups and ordinary Yemenis throughout the country. Over the past year, Yemen has crawled its way back from the brink of a civil war that could have degenerated into what we now witness in Syria. This alone is reason to applaud the progress made to date.
The long-awaited departure of Saleh was negotiated through a painstaking process that resulted in a transition plan supported by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) between the former president and the primary opposition parties, in which Saleh stepped down in exchange for full immunity. The agreement prevented a long and painful bloodletting process, installed a consensus president and unity government, and galvanized considerable political and economic support from the international community. After assuming his position in February 2012, current President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi has exceeded initial expectations in confronting entrenched powers and implementing the transition plan.
The flaws of the GCC deal, however, are many -- and risk hampering Yemen's chances for real democratic change. While most Yemenis have resigned themselves to following rather than resisting the internationally-supported transition plan, it is essential to understand where these pitfalls exist in order to mitigate potential stumbling blocks as the process moves forward.
1.The deal preserved grave political cleavages. The primary political division in Yemen since the transition was between the former president's son, Ahmed Ali, and the opposition-affiliated military commander, Ali Mohsin. One year later, this rift remains as poignant as ever, each side aligned with powerful relatives and allies. President Hadi has removed some key military commanders and governors affiliated with the Saleh family and former regime, but common wisdom dictated that keeping Ahmed Ali and Ali Mohsin in place was essential in order to prevent instability and chaos. Each has substantial military and security forces under his command and are still poised for a fight should the need arise.
Although a more fundamental restructuring and integration of the armed forces is a core component of the GCC plan, very little action has been taken and there is no communication with the public about how or when the restructuring will happen. This reality, combined with blanket immunity for Saleh and his cohort and no transitional justice system in place to address legitimate grievances from the conflict, makes most Yemenis feel that very little has changed. Greater transparency and direct communication about how the government intends to address these issues would go a long way in helping to generate confidence among the public for the government, which is quickly fading.
2.The transitional government is divided and ineffective. The post-Saleh government was designed to be a 50/50 joint effort between the former ruling party (the General People's Congress) and the opposition coalition (Joint Meeting Parties and independent figures). While laudable in theory, the reality is that Hadi's government is deeply divided and lacks the sense that they are all playing on the same team trying to achieve the same goals.
The infighting, combined with weak leadership on the part of the president and prime minister, has led paralysis. The top-tier posts in the ministries were selected based on what or who they represented, not based on any technocratic skill or knowledge, further compounding their inability to get anything done. Most are looking to advance their parties' interests, thwart gains by their opponents, or cover up any wrongdoing during Saleh's reign. Given the immense challenges that Yemen faces in social, humanitarian, and economic spheres, it can hardly afford this level of incompetency and inefficiency. More dynamic leadership from President Hadi and Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa is desperately needed.
3. Expectations for the National Dialogue are unrealistic and may sow the seeds of its failure. The GCC deal positioned the National Dialogue as a panacea for Yemen's most insurmountable problems. Since the transition plan itself did not address the most important political issues plaguing Yemen -- the Southern question, the Houthi movement, participation of women and youth, constitutional reform and electoral system -- all these topics have been foisted upon the National Dialogue, creating an impossible burden and setting unrealistic benchmarks for a six-month process.
To his credit, President Hadi has established a representative Technical Committee for the National Dialogue, which has painstakingly worked with UN Envoy Jamal Benomar to prepare the groundwork for this undertaking. Benomar and his team are providing valuable technical assistance to the committee, and pushing the process forward each step of the way, but there is only so much they can reasonably achieve if they adhere to presumed parliamentary election date of March 2014.
The most important issue at present is ensuring the right kind of representation by the Southern Movement in the dialogue. Without this, the process will lack legitimacy among arguably its most important target group.
The National Dialogue was meant to begin in mid-November, but recent reports indicate it will be delayed, most likely until after the new year. Yemen's leaders and its international backers will have to balance the need for adherence to a timeline with allowing sufficient time to ensure necessary buy-in by a range of southern leadership.
4. The government is not paying sufficient attention to the economy. Given the divided nature of the government and the all-consuming focus on the National Dialogue, there is almost no bandwidth to think about implementing an economic plan and how to create new jobs and income for families to survive. Given that the lack of economic opportunity was a primary driver for the youth-led uprising throughout Yemen -- and that job creation is a critical factor in addressing internal security problems and the allure of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- this should be priority number one for the government.
The GCC transition plan did not address Yemen's economic challenges, but did promise support from the international community. The Friends of Yemen group, led by the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia to assist Yemen's economy and political transition, has leveraged nearly $8 billion in aid for Yemen, largely shouldered by the Gulf countries. However, the same problems that followed the 2006 donor conference for Yemen still exist -- lack of government capacity to digest funds and implement projects, donor fears about corruption, and bureaucratic inefficiencies that slow decision-making. The Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation is tasked with leading this charge, but it lacks the necessary authority to address all these issues, and has its own internal weaknesses.
Yemen needs a truly independent body empowered by President Hadi with ministerial-level authority, like the Council for Development and Reconstruction in Lebanon, to fast-track decisions and prioritize projects focused on job creation and income generation for Yemen's work force. There is a lot of good talk in government circles, but now is the time for decisive action.
Despite these clear weaknesses of the transition plan, the situation in Yemen could clearly be far worse. The fact that near-normality has returned to Yemen's capital and that electricity has returned to many homes on a far more consistent basis is a drastic improvement to the situation a year ago. If the basis of measurement is the extent that bloodshed was prevented and the removal of an autocratic, erratic leader, then Yemen scores a moderately successful transition -- particularly when compared with the killing witnessed in Libya and currently underway in Syria.
But if the barometer is genuine political transformation and deepening of democratic institutions, Yemen still has a long way to go. The lack of security, pervasive feeling that nothing has really changed since the days of Saleh, and little improvement on the economic and basic services front leave a lot to be desired. President Hadi and his government can do better -- and the international community, including the United States, the Europeans, the United Nations and the World Bank, all have a critical role to play in ensuring they have all the tools and assistance at their disposal. Even the modest gains Yemen has achieved are easily reversible. A successful National Dialogue and opportunities for income generation are essential to ensuring that next year at this time the achievements to date far outweigh the shortfalls.