This past Wednesday, November 23rd, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally signed the Gulf Arab Proposal that in one form or another has been on the table for 7 months now. The signing by President Saleh comes on the heels of increased international pressure, with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2014 mandating an official report by the UN envoy Jamal Bin Omar, within 30 days regarding the implementation of the resolution. Ultimately, if Saleh continued to refuse signature, calls for his assets to be frozen would have been heeded. Instead, Saleh signs and receives immunity along with a number of other key figures within the GPC including Saleh’s family members. His family members retain their posts within the security apparatus and Saleh is neither exiled from the country nor explicitly banned from future political participation. Saleh has transferred power but the political institutions that the former President built, remain intact, creating a window for regime survival. Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi assumed power and named Mohammed Basindwa as Prime Minister tasked with forming a unity government until elections are held on February 21, 2012. He is a member of the GPC party and held cabinet posts within Saleh’s government. Many in the youth protest movement are livid over the immunity clause of the agreement. After bearing the brunt of regime loyalist violence over the past 10 months, the prospect of Saleh avoiding prosecution is unfathomable. Though the larger concern for the youth movement remains that their calls for democratic reforms and political inclusiveness are in jeopardy of becoming afterthoughts.
President Saleh’s colorful description comparing ruling Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes” paints a picture of perpetual danger and political competition. Saleh held onto power by instituting a patronage system that involved paying off tribal leaders that he deemed politically relevant. Once the Yemen oil era began in the 80’s and the wealth of Saleh’s regime increased, the patronage system strengthened and functioned through payments of cash and kind by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to thousands of Sheikhs throughout Yemen. Another method utilized the education and health systems to provide “ghost” payments via employee contracts and direct cash transfers. The patronage system centralized Saleh’s authority and eroded the more traditional leadership connections between a Sheikh and his tribe.
This system, though highly entrenched, evolved and became more concentrated as oil revenues dwindled over the past decade. Saleh was dependent upon oil revenues with this accounting for over 70% of the national budget each year. Yet, oil production has diminished greatly, by about 40% since its peak 10 years ago and will continue to deplete barring a major find, an unlikely scenario.
An optimistic view of the signing can point to the symbolic nature of ousting Saleh after 33 years of rule and 10 months of sporadic fighting and perpetual protests. This is the necessary first step towards reform. But how so? Saleh’s family members and loyalists remain in their high level positions within the power structure Saleh constructed. They are the inner circles with the primary core circle being that of his immediate (i.e. Ahmed Saleh who controls the Republican Guard units, Air Force Commander Mohammed Saleh al- Ahmar etc.) and extended family members (i.e. Deputy Commander of the Central Security Forces Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh etc.) and then another circle involving elites from his Sanhan tribe and so on. The reality is that reform is a distant endeavor and with each passing opportunity, the leverage of the youth movement weakens. The soft landing of the Gulf Arab Proposal for Saleh is a lost opportunity and an unfortunate development for the youth movement.They achieved the most superficial of their aspirations and the GCC initiative did very little to alter the prevailing power dynamics within Yemen.
The political competition between Ahmed Ali- Abdullah Saleh and Ali Mohsen persists with each in charge of thousands of trained military personnel. The competition for presidential succession is a reality that does not simply vanish with Saleh’s tenure. The nature of the pursuit may have changed some with Saleh’s ouster but power remains the objective. The Al-Ahmar’s of the Hashid Tribe are certainly going to pursue their slice of the pie despite being left on the outside of the power transfer deal as well. Yemen is a heavily armed country and there are multiple entities that are capable of participating in armed conflict if compelled. For now, it will be interesting to see which individuals Prime Minister Basindwa includes in the interim Unity government in the coming days and how they deal with the military apparatus. The cleavages within the security apparatus create a major obstacle towards a peaceful transition from here on out. And since the opposition and international community did not demand the removal of Saleh’s kin from military posts, they will need to be negotiated with in order to be brought into the fold. For all intents and purposes, Saleh is still in charge of large portions of the military via his kin, a potentially destabilizing fact.