Yemen's Looming Succession Crisis

Whoever takes over for President Saleh in 2013 faces a daunting set of challenges


In Yemen, people have an expression for their form of government. They call it "decorative democracy," a poor disguise for the military autocracy that Yemen has had for decades. The president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has weathered 32 years in office, including assassination attempts, national unification, and civil war. In the early 1990s, he created the veneer of democratic institutions (including an "opposition party") mostly for the purpose of courting foreign aid; now, with an affiliate of al-Qaeda festering in his country's rural interior, Saleh felt his U.S. aid was secure enough to flirt with the idea of abolishing term limits.

It might have worked were it not for the timing. Yemenis have staged their own protests for political reform in the shadows of Tunisia and Egypt, even naming February 3 their own "Day of Rage." Saleh has disowned the constitutional amendment that would have abolished term limits, as well as rumors that he was grooming his son for the presidency, and on February 2 he announced that he will not seek another term when his current term expires in 2013.

There is plenty of reason to doubt Saleh's sincerity: He has claimed that he would not run for office twice before, only to "reconsider" and be, in some sense of the word, reelected. Two years is a long time in politics and it is too early to say that he is not just waiting out the worst of things before asserting himself again. The year 2013 may still see Saleh in the executive office, but the dictator is 69* years old now and a succession crisis is looming in Yemen. Who will come next is anyone's guess. There are a few likely contenders, but whoever takes over will be responsible for a country that is careening toward near-inevitable crisis.

Saleh has said that there will be "no inheritance" of his presidency, but there's little to prevent his son, Ahmed, or any other member of the family (many of whom are senior officers in the military) from campaigning on their own. In a free election, the unpopular Ahmed would almost certainly lose, but his father could engineer an electoral victory.

Another contender is Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, the leading commander of the Yemen Armed Forces and, by most accounts, the second most powerful man in the country. Last year, he declared he would not tolerate Ahmed Saleh becoming president, perhaps signalling that the general is waiting for his own turn. His chances of a legitimate victory are also poor. Military campaigns against a rebellion in the north and a crackdown on southern dissidents have alienated al Ahmar from much of the public. If he does not like the results, though, a military coup is always a possibility.

In the event of a free election, the strongest candidate would probably come from the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of convenience for a number of parties with interests ranging from moderate socialist secession in the formerly independent south to the legislation of puritanical religious practice. The strongest of these parties is Islah, itself a conglomeration of tribal partisan and Wahabbists, an ultra-conservative Islamic sect dominant in Saudi Arabia. Their candidate would probably be a moderate, such as Hamid al Ahmar, a party official and leader of the Hashid Tribal Federation, Yemen's largest tribe, which also happens to include Saleh and General al Ahmar. But it's difficult to know how Islah would govern. It's unclear how much the party is dominated by its religious element, which includes Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani, known in Yemen as a henna-bearded popular icon but known to the U.S. as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist associated with financing al Qaeda and possibly recruiting for the attack on the USS Cole. Last October, Islah's religious wing blocked a parliamentary measure that would have codified a legal age for marriage, provoking a fist fight on the Parliament floor.

Much like in Egypt, the popular opposition in Yemen has been so effectively fragmented and marginalized by the government that no one group is well enough organized to fill the void that would open if the three decades of centralized rule were to collapse. Yemen has two years to prepare for a peaceful transition of power, in which parties will jockey for power in the tinderbox of Yemeni politics. Groups that refuse to work within the transition - the Houthi rebels in the north, the secessionist movement in the south, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the rural interior, authoritarian military elements - could touch off violence that would force the parties to factionalize. Civil war is never off the table in Yemen.

Whoever takes over for Saleh will inherit an almost impossible job. Water is becoming increasingly scarce. With a median age of 17, the large youth population is maturing into an economy with a 35% unemployment rate. Yemen's relatively small reserve of oil, which could run out by the end of the decade, is the cornerstone of its economy. To appease popular unrest, in the past month Saleh has halved the income tax, restored pensions to federal jobs, increased the number of government jobs, and raised salaries for military forces. With oil revenues rapidly declining, Saleh has mortgaged Yemen's long-term security for near-term stability. These benefits will ease Saleh's transition out, but they'll also set up the next president for an economic and demographic crisis.

In ten years' time, when there isn't a drop of oil left and government salaries have gone unpaid for years, when Sanaanis wait weeks for trucks of water they cannot afford, Saleh's last years could look like a relative golden age. Whoever takes over in 2013, those challenges may be more than he, or Yemen, can withstand.


*This post originally stated that President Saleh is 78 years old. We regret the error.

Photo: Members of Yemen's opposition talk before a session of Parliament. The man in center's sash reads, "No for life presidency, no for hereditary succession." By Gamal Noman/AFP/Getty