Yemen: hard to be hopeful

I spent the morning with people who know a lot more about Yemen than I do.  Nothing about the discussion convinced me that Yemen is any less complicated and difficult than I’ve already said.  But here are some interesting points from the discussion:

  • It is not yet clear what President Saleh will really do.  He still controls a lot of guns and is not entirely reconciled to the “dignified exit” the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement in principle provides.  He signed the agreement because he thought the UN Security Council resolution presaged sanctions if he did not.  Things remain pretty much as they were six weeks ago, when he finally signed.  His interest in coming to the United States for medical treatment was genuine, but motivated in part by wanting to be out of Yemen during the transition.  He would however not be able to stay past the February 21 presidential election, when he would presumably lose diplomatic immunity as a sitting head of state.
  • The impunity/immunity provisions of the GCC agreement remain problematic.  The UN is uncomfortable with them because they cover things like crimes against humanity, human rights abuse, war crimes, genocide and gender-based violence, from which there is supposed to be no immunity.  The Yemen parliament may balk at passing the necessary immunity legislation, which would give Saleh the excuse to renege on other aspects of the agreement.
  • There is no real political settlement underlying the GCC agreement.  The young protesters, Houthi rebels from the north and separatists from the south were not at the negotiating table.  The protesters and separatists are so fragmented that it would have taken years to get them there.  The Houthis may realign with Saleh. Islah, one of the main opposition parties, is strong among the protesters, but it does not control them.
  • The agreement is basically between Saleh’s political party (General People’s Congress or GPC) and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the official “opposition.”  The political dynamics inside the GPC are not yet clear.  The JMP is fractious and may not hold together.  A political realignment, even one that strengthens Saleh’s GPC, is possible.  Islamist strength is not clear, though given the overall trend in the Arab Spring it would surprising if they did not emerge as a political force.  Ali Mohsen and Hamid al Ahmar, the military/tribal leaders who have played a key anti-Saleh role in recent months, are on board with the GCC agreement and are still important players.  It is not clear what their future political ambitions might be.
  • No “democratic center” has yet emerged.  Setting up the rules of the game so that it does is a major challenge.  There is also a real need for transitional justice measures, even if immunity holds, to establish the facts, clarify accountability and begin to enable reconciliation.  None of this will be easy.
  • Al Qaeda continues to occupy territory around Zinjibar. This could be good news:  it keeps them preoccupied with local issues and less able to launch attacks on the United States.

Much credit to those who deal with Yemen.  At least they’ve got an agreement on which to base their efforts and backing from the Security Council.  But is hard to be hopeful, even if Saleh does leave power, given the dimensions and complexity of the problems there.

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