Gulf monarchies and the Yemeni old guard are working together to buy time and, they hope, sap the uprising of its ability to keep protesting
Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi / Reuters
After three months of protests and street battles in cities throughout Yemen, opposition leaders announced on Monday, April 25, that they were prepared to sign a negotiated settlement with the regime. The agreement, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is supposed to usher in a transitional government that would be a mutually agreeable compromise between the current government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the opposition movement, which includes a variety of marginalized political groups. Reports of the settlement eagerly declared that the "political crisis" in Yemen was near its end.
It's not over. Not even close.
Despite their statements in support of the settlement, the parties could not even agree when to sign -- the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) said the agreement would be signed on Saturday; President Saleh's political party, the General People's Congress (GPC) said Sunday. As of today, the agreement is still awaiting signatures.
On Saturday, GCC Secretary-General Abdel Latif al Zayyani arrived in Sanaa to escort Saleh to Riyadh for the signing ceremony. Saleh refused to go. He complained that he would not sign if Qatar was represented at the ceremony, as he blames Doha-based al Jazeera for inciting protests. He requested one of his ministers sign in his stead and told officials that he would not leave Yemen for fear of a coup while he was abroad. Al Zayyani told the press that he met with Saleh four times and each time Saleh insisted on a new condition for signing the accord. The Yemeni president appears to be, as he has from the start, buying time.
The GCC settlement actually settles nothing -- it hasn't even been able to provide a reprieve from the political violence in the streets of Sanaa, Ta'iz, and Aden. Wednesday, April 27, two days after both the regime and the opposition agreed to sign the deal, was the bloodiest day in Yemen in more than a month, with plainclothes gunmen in Sanaa firing into crowds of anti-government protesters. Bullet-pocked ambulances rushed the injured to official or makeshift hospitals. Twelve died, and al Jazeera now estimates more than 140 deaths in the past three months. That may be a conservative estimate. Last Friday's march, which filled the 60 Meter Road highway in the capital, was dubbed the Friday of Honoring Martyrs.
The GCC, a regional organization consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman, has been eager to staunch the Arab Spring, which they fear could threaten their own regimes. One month after the first protests in Bahrain, the GCC bolstered the Bahraini regime with a Peninsular Shield force of 1,000 Saudi troops. Saudi Arabia, the most influential member of the council, has a particular interest in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based affiliate of the wider al-Qaeda terror network, has attacked the Saudi royal family before and would like to again. The Saudis have had an understanding with the Saleh regime, even helping fight in the Yemeni government's war against rebellious northern tribes. Keeping Saleh is the best of all possible worlds for Saudi Arabia. They keep their ally and further illustrate what they began in Bahrain: the consequences of a failing rebellion.
The basic tenets of the settlement concede a great deal to the Saleh regime. Upon signing, a new legislature will be formed, in which Saleh's GPC party will retain 50%, the JMP, 40%, with an additional 10% to be decided later (probably filled by representatives from the military). Under the agreement, after 30 days the president must tender his resignation to the new "unity government," which would then swiftly pass immunity for Saleh, his relatives, and senior members of his government. Sixty days after Saleh's resignation, elections would be held.
The process would probably never get that far. According to the Yemen Times, the GPC has already announced its intention to decline Saleh's resignation; the Yemeni constitution requires an absolute majority to accept the resignation of the president, and under the apportionment of the GCC deal, the parliamentary opposition will not be able to override the GPC. And then there's the fact that the Republican Guard forces under the command of Saleh's son are still shooting protesters in the streets -- there's no reason for Saleh to escalate unless he's planning to stay.
Why would the opposition even sign? They wouldn't, at least not as a united front, but Saleh has always been skilled at political manipulation. He has stayed in office for three decades by playing tribal alliances against one another, and now he is doing the same with the factions within the opposition movement. The JMP itself is an illustration of the strange bedfellows of Yemeni politics. They represent a range of tribal, Islamist, and socialist interests that would be anathema to one another under other circumstances; they are united only in their marginalization by the regime. They are also the only political representation outside of the president's GPC, and as members of the existing government, are associated with status quo politics. Within the opposition, the JMP has the most to lose. As a result, they're the most eager to sign an agreement that maintains their political significance.
The agreement boxes out the youth movement, the most vocal advocates of Saleh's departure. In the GCC arrangement, they will have little, if any, representation in the interim legislature, and will have only sixty days to build a political infrastructure -- candidates, platforms, campaigns -- from scratch. The youth and much of the protest movement are refusing this deal, and a spokesman for the youth opposition called the JMP's stated intention to sign the agreement "political suicide." In particular, protesters have chafed at the prospect that Saleh would be granted immunity from prosecution. The Peaceful Youth Revolt, an opposition youth council, has stated their intention to continue protesting until Saleh's resignation, whether to hold him to any agreement that he makes or to continue to press for his ouster.
Saleh is still biding his time, searching for ways to fragment the opposition and hold onto his office to the end of his term in 2013, or longer. The GCC plan is more a political instrument than an accord, and it seems extremely unlikely that it will end the turmoil in the restive state. There is no agreement, not yet, and it does not look like there will be for some time to come.