Yemen and the road to transition

Basile Roze - International Reporter 24 January 2013

In 2011 Yemen united to shatter a 30 years old political order, resulting in the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and unleashing a wave of forgotten tensions in the region. A year later, the country finds itself at the crossroads of three main movements that are on the verge of becoming a major regional epicentre.

At the moment the country is undergoing a unique political transition: set against the wider backdrop of the Arab spring, democratic elections are scheduled to be held in February 2014 following a series of national discussions. The new president – Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi – must now deal with a divided “consensus parliament” that includes the former president’s party as well as the Islamist and socialist parties. Furthermore, he also has to hold his own against a powerful army controlled by Saleh’s allies: only last month he took the decision to dismiss the former president’s sons from their key military positions. In light of these developments, the establishment of a national dialogue is now broadly anticipated. The success or failure of the dialogue – which is to include 565 of the most prominent figures of Yemenite political life – is likely to determine the democratic progress of the country.

There are two other serious challenges to the transitional government. Tensions have resurfaced in the South, with Aden’s main newspaper Aden Al-Ghad estimating that there were almost “two million people in the streets under the flag of the former Southern Independent Yemen” last week. Controversially, US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein asserted that the autonomous movement was being supported by Iran. It is possible that Tehran sees these events as an opportunity to upset the regional stability of its Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia, and to implement a Shia government in the region. In addition, the government must also face the growing discontent of powerful tribal leaders, who are clamouring to increase their regional power. The main oil pipeline in the Marib region of the country has also been systematically sabotaged, an act that has grave repercussions given that the country’s economy hinges squarely on its oil and gas exports.

An even more dire issue now looms in the Sana’a. Al-Qaeda, the strongest faction in the region, appears to be increasingly adventurous, carrying out suicide attacks and direct skirmishes with the army. It is also attempting to put a decisive end to relations between tribal leaders and the new government by systematically threatening tribesmen who appear to be collaborating with Sana’a.

In part, because of this new strategic dynamic that has evolved, Yemen’s path to democratisation now seems fraught with turbulence and difficulties. Here like elsewhere in the Arab world, a true democratic revolution resulting in the people’s political independence, is yet to come.

Basile Roze – International Reporter