Yemen's Democratic Revolution, One Year Later

Four reasons for anxiety about the Arab Spring's forgotten revolution.

RTR3AZAE-615.jpgPro-democracy protesters shout slogans in Sanaa. (Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi /Reuters)

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 Democracy ReportThe 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.

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Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, where she leads the Yemen Policy Group.

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