Yemen 2012: A Year of Transition and Crisis

Article Summary
Yemen witnessed both peaceful change and unresolved crises in 2012, writes Abu Bakr Abdullah.

Yemenis are coping with three major challenges as they head into 2013, bearing the heavy weight of the legacy left by a year fraught with the effects of a popular youth revolution in 2011. The consequences of that revolution have instilled among many ambitions of building a civil, democratic state based upon popular participation and the rule of law. Yet it has also produced massive crises with which political elites, regional and international actors are struggling to encompass within the framework of consensus at the National Dialogue Congress that is expected to rank highly on the president's and the transitional government's list of priorities in the coming year.

Yemenis may be exiting 2012, but the crises of that year and their implications have not yet found their way to an enduring solution. Indeed those crises are likely candidates for escalation in the coming year. Foremost among these is the security issue, and in particular the potential reconstitution of al-Qaeda as well as rising fears of ascendant post-revolutionary centers of power. All of which is taking place in the shadow of the army's division and the lingering influence of the former regime, and moving along with the political issue and the stumbling with which it confronts the approaching deadlines of the phase two of transition outlined in the GCC initiative. That initiative is believed by many to have pulled Yemen back from the brink of war and onto the path to a peaceful resolution, yet it failed in removing many factors that contribute to political tension. These remain very much in effect and threaten the possibility of a comprehensive settlement.

More than that, these factors on the ground threaten national unity and have come to the fore in the form of separatist movements that have recently been supported by the National Congress of Southern Movement forces. This took place only a few days after plans and programs were drawn up and announced to pave the way for a declaration of an independent federal state in Yemen, to become fully separate from the rest of the country within two years.

Despite the fact that the congress enjoyed widespread international and regional support in its desire to forge a united leadership for the forces of the Southern Movement to rally around, one which could prepare them to enter the political arena as an effective player and a basic constituency of those participating in the National Dialogue Conference — despite all that, it nevertheless emerged from the context of the National Honor Charter and other documents that further upheld the principle of breaking the links between north and south Yemen. These results largely correspond to the maneuverings of the external leadership of the Southern Movement, most of whom are southerners who have lived in exile abroad since the war in the summer of 1994. It did not depart greatly from the documents promulgated by the National Congress for the People of South Yemen.

Many have minimized the importance of these maneuvers, while others viewed them as a prologue to a tempestuous stage in the history of southern Yemeni separatism. Some expect that in the coming year it will take on a larger regional and international role, while others expect that it will play a role in hindering the preparations for convening the National Dialogue Summit. The latter's preparatory committee had fixed the Southern Movement's representation in the congress at over 50%, which immediately prompted the remaining figures in the movement to revoke their own participation.

More than this, parts of the Southern Movement turned toward forming committees to negotiate between North and South Yemen on the issue of self-determination, also in parallel to maneuvers announced by the same southern leadership that has been living in exile since the 1994 war. Along with them are the most prominent leaders of the southern movement inside the country. They seek broad international and regional support and cover for disengaging from the north.

The political issue

For all the painful crises that Yemenis have witnessed over the course of 2012, they remain truly supportive of peaceful change. This year Yemenis have been able to rest at ease, after many months when signs of war loomed heavily and seemed as if they might push the country into the grips of chaos. Particularly after former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and other political leaders signed the GCC initiative in Riyadh that put in place strict mechanisms and timetables for ending the cycle of violence and turning toward a peaceful path in order to inspire change.

With the signing of the GCC initiative in the shadow of a significant regional and international presence, many of the indicators of conflict began to recede. Local and foreign efforts played a large role in restoring the situation to stability, strengthening trust among the conflicting parties. Especially in the capital of Sanaa, which had witnessed a bloody war that had continued for months on end.

Many Yemenis find it difficult to comprehend the situation that reigned at the opening of 2012, when they ushered in the new year with security disruptions and acts of violence that spread throughout Yemen's other provinces (albeit at a slower pace than in the capital). The protests even extended to a number of military institutions, which witnessed demonstrations that expelled a number of figures of the old regime, and increased fears of clashes between the regime and its opponents. So much so that both sides remained entrenched for over two months following the signing of the Gulf initiative.

Yet regional international efforts went at their own pace. The first days of 2012 witnessed accelerated preparations in parliament for issuing a law granting full immunity from prosecution to the former president and his senior aides, and those who worked with him during the years of his administration. The sweeping immunity was timed in conjunction with Washington's arrangements for Saleh to depart from Yemen for New York until the arrangements for new elections could be completed. Soon thereafter parliament approved the immunity and provided for the succession of Field Marshall Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as a consensus president.

International and regional efforts played a vital role in saving Yemen, which had been slowly slipping into the unknown. These culminated on Feb. 20, 2012, when efforts were focused on organizing presidential elections amid an unprecedented volatility and fears that the situation could collapse at any moment.

By contrast, when former President Saleh looked down upon his subjects from his residence in New York — where he was receiving medical treatment — bid farewell to his people, called upon his supporters, key figures of his regime, and all Yemenis to elect his deputy Hadi as president, the situation seemed well in hand.

On Feb. 21, in accordance with provisions of the Gulf Initiative, Yemenis awoke to a non-competitive election that nevertheless enjoyed wide participation and in which Hadi was elected as a consensus president for a transitional period of two years. His purpose was to replace the former president. This was to inaugurate a new phase in which international effort was led by the deputy secretary general of the UN and his personal emissary to Yemen, Jamal Bin Amr. Along with a team of regional and international mediators, they worked to mobilize political parties and revolutionary forces towards tamping down the bellicose atmosphere and directing efforts away from military tensions, and toward rebuilding that which was destroyed in the war, as well as rebuilding confidence in the organs of state that had been on the verge of total collapse prior to the signing of the Gulf Initiative.  

Circumventing broad and urgent steps

More Yemenis in the northern governorates voted for President Hadi, while southern governorates boycotted the elections in response to the Southern Movement's call to do so. However these elections constituted a genuine turning point in Yemen’s transition from armed violence to a peaceful option to transfer power. This was subsequently reflected in several steps taken by the president-elect to pass a resolution elevating the leader of the opposition, Mohamed Salim Basindwa. He was to become the head of a broad, consensus-based transitional government that equally represented revolutionary forces and the allies of the old regime. It was formed to undertake specific tasks in implementing the requirements of the Gulf Initiative and according to its timetable.

President Hadi’s government bears a heavy burden in the form of a legacy of crises and mistakes bequeathed by his predecessor Saleh. These had led to the emergence of the Southern problem, incited a cycle of violence in the governorate of Saada, to say nothing of a gravely challenging economic situation. This legacy led to a fracturing in the ranks of the army and exacerbated the security challenges already raging in governorates where barricades had to be deployed in the streets. Due to barricades and closed roads the country suffers severe bottlenecks in food and fuel, resulting in shortages of electricity and water. Moreover, in many governorates, the writ of the central government simply does not run.

But President Hadi managed to overcome these obstacles quietly and skillfully by focusing his efforts on security issues. In this he made progress in record time. His efforts coincided with practical measures taken to implement the requirements of the Gulf Initiative that had been drafted by the National Consensus Government and directed by the military task commission to engage other political forces in the governmental process while also addressing the pressures of the economic crisis. All this was done while the street was boiling over with ongoing demonstrations on a daily basis. These demonstrations called for reducing the influence of the remnants of the old regime on civilian and military institutions of the state as well as in the military hierarchy. They demanded that proper care be devoted to the martyrs of the revolution as well as for the wounded and disabled, and that those who perpetrated crimes against the revolutionaries be held to account.

The transitional government quickly took matters in hand. The military commission, designated under the Gulf Initiative, began to undertake its mission to dispel military tensions, remove barricades from the streets and pull opposing militias out of the capital. Their duties also included street cleaning and rearranging military institutions which were affected as a result of armed clashes in the capital and other provinces. Meanwhile, President Hadi initiated measures to dismantle the power centers of the former regime from the army and security institutions.

Other Yemenis became involved in this effort and the country quickly left behind the effects of the bloody conflict that had raged between pro- and anti-regime forces in Sanaa and several provinces. However, manifestations of the security vacuum continued to spread both horizontally and vertically as a series of attacks and bombings targeting army officers and military bases. Soon a war of assassinations reared its ugly head,  targeting many military and security leaders. It continued to plague Yemen's security situation until the end of 2012.

Consequently, practical steps were taken to restructure the army. President Hadi issued a series of directives dismissing a number of former regime figures as well as military and security personalities close to the former president. He skillfully managed to overcome an insurgency led by army leaders either related  to, or otherwise affiliated with, the former president as well as their refusal to comply with presidential resolutions for their dismissal.

Hadi issued a presidential decree authored by the preparatory committee of the National Dialogue Conference. He also ordered the proceeding of arrangements to issue the Law on Transitional Justice and National Reconciliation.

National Dialogue Conference

The National Dialogue Conference and the issue of the South and restructuring the army moved in tandem with the formation of a single coherent organization. This is considered by many to be one of the most serious challenges confronting Yemen in 2013. Both Yemenis and the international community believe that the National Dialogue Conference is a pivotal step in the putting in place the foundations of a new state. They see the fulfillment of this step as an essential prerequisite to solving the major national problems, foremost among which is the question of the South, matters of national consensus and unity, and plans to restructure the army.

It is expected that Yemenis at the National Dialogue Conference will draft a new constitution outlining the sort of political system they seek. They also aspire to implant it with liberal principles to protect and cultivate Yemen's democratic experiment and uphold the principle of a peaceful transfer of power. This includes a government built upon a foundation of complete local autonomy and a federal system that some believe may provide an equitable and comprehensive solution to both the Southern issue and the cycle of violence plaguing the governorate of Saada. In particular, Yemen will seek to move away from its previous experience with all its flaws into a new horizon, one that will open the way for strengthening opportunities for popular participation in government and guaranteeing against the return of authoritarian regimes that rule with an iron fist.

Political circles and the revolutionary youth are awaiting the National Dialogue Conference to produce an agreement regarding Yemen's electoral system. It currently relies on proportional representation to ensure that the main constituencies of Yemeni society are fairly represented in parliament and local governing bodies. They are also awaiting the drafting of an electoral system legislation and organs of local government endowed with full authority.

The arrangements for convening the National Dialogue Conference were influenced by the concerns of the presidency, the transitional government, and the international delegation led UN envoy Jamal bin Omar in the last months of 2012. They hoped that it would take place in more favorable conditions and with the participation of other political and social forces, above all the revolutionary youth, in order to draft a new social contract enjoying the consensus post-revolutionary Yemen.

The security issue

Yemenis had barely grasped the first achievements won in the political bargaining of the first phase of the Gulf Initiative when the country entered a complex security crisis as a result of the return of the risk of al-Qaeda and the escalating war of assassinations that targeted a number of major military and security leaders, as well as the bombing crisis that has continued targeting oil and gas wells, which are the two main pillars of the national economy.

Since the beginning of 2012 the threat of Ansar al-Sharia, the Yemeni arm of al-Qaeda, has dominated the security landscape. The militants took advantage of the lack of state regulation and concern with the issue of a political settlement. In the event of a split in the ranks of the army they took complete control of several towns in the governorates of Abyan and Shabwa and obtained a large arsenal of weapons from military camps that they had taken control of amid accusations of complicity and support of the former regime’s power centers. This contributed to their victories and the seizure of military camps and heavy military equipment. They then declared the areas Islamic Emirates, particularly in the governorates of Abyan and Shabwa. Subsequently, they broke out of the control of the state, which concentrated its effort on delivering relief and rescue efforts for the nearly 150,000 people displaced from towns seized by the organization to neighboring provinces. However, the Yemeni army once again asserted its authority over these areas after several fierce battles.

Found in: yemeni revolution, national dialogue conference, ali abdullah saleh, abed rabbo mansour hadi

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