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Yemen in transition - and in turmoil

Transition efforts crossed several hurdles, however, serious security challenges remain unresolved.

Last updated: 06 Feb 2014 11:33
Joseph A Kechichian

Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).
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Yemeni President Mansour Hadi faces the gargantuan task of unifying the country [EPA]

Yemen's future in the post Ali Abdullah Saleh era was never as precarious as today. Herculean reconciliation efforts to carve a new system have been subjected to interminable tests.

While a Saudi-brokered, United Nations-backed and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-sponsored deal saw former President Saleh step down in favour of a coalition government, the transition mechanism that rested on national dialogue - part of the same agreement - struggled, but finally reached its conclusion with two key recommendations. First, it extended the transitional period and allowed an extra year to draft a new constitution and, second, it outlined Yemen's future as a federal state, which was not a generally accepted outcome.

How this impoverished country was supposed to grapple with multiple revolts and, simultaneously, devise a new system of government, were the key questions that faced Sanaa. Equally daunting were assertive southern separatist movements, which never accepted the 1990 unification process, and that resulted in fierce clashes. Even more discouraging were the violent confrontations between Houthi rebels and northern violent extremists, which brought the country on the brink of a new war.

Inside Story - Yemen: Redrawing the political map?

For now, and although President Mansour Hadi was granted an extra year to manage Yemen's political factions, it remains to be determined whether a new federal system could indeed be introduced, as the troubled country salvaged what was left of the 2011 uprising. Of course, much depends on the head of state's finesse and, perhaps as important, on Yemen's powerful tribal constituents.

Focus on national dialogue

Starting in November 2012, various groups committed to a national dialogue that was, at times, cantankerous. Yemenis set out to see whether they shared a vision for a "civil state", starting with presidential elections scheduled for February 2014 (now postponed to 2015), followed by a new constitution. The alternative, all parties conceded, was a looming civil war. And while just about everyone anticipated failure, Yemeni elites persevered. For months on end, southern secessionists led by the Peaceful Southern Movement (al-Harakah al-Selmiyia al-Janubia) sought to correct, or at least prevent a recurrence of what many perceived to be the failures of Yemeni unification, which favoured northerners at their expense.

Major debates occurred over the application of federalism and the degree of autonomy that federated regions would presumably receive. Under the circumstances, and as these debates highlighted, the transition government confronted its predecessor's mixed legacy, which was heavy-handed in the "occupation" of the south, or at least so concluded many Yemenis. Observers duly noted these intrinsic grievances two decades after the presumed unification of the country as the pros and cons of a federal system were extensively debated. If the latest compromises settled on establishing six regional states, it was precisely to avoid the domination of any particular region, which was a fair plank to preserve the nascent union.

In fact, and above all else, Yemen's most pressing problem was how to solve these genuine southern grievances, and it was with that in mind that the UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser for Yemen, Jamal bin Omar, welcomed the results of the National Dialogue Conference. "It is a historic moment for Yemen," Bin Omar said as he commended this unprecedented and peaceful Yemeni achievement. "After being on the brink of civil war, Yemenis negotiated an agreement for peaceful change, the only such [agreement] in the region," he opined. "The National Dialogue established a new social contract and opened a new page in the history of Yemen, breaking from the past and paving the way for democratic governance founded on the rule of law, human rights and equal citizenship," the Special Adviser clarified, and reaffirmed the international community's support for the Yemeni-led political process.

Gradual adoption of federation

Admittedly, creating a new political system, especially a federation that acknowledged rough parity among states or regions, was superbly complicated. But Yemen is on schedule, as dialogue participants agreed that its federal system would be composed of either two or six regions. They also empowerd President Hadi to head a committee to draft a constitution within three months- a record time but eminently doable given the impeccable Tunisian paradgim. Equally important, the "Hadi Committee" was also tasked to draft another law to allow Yemenis to demand the restoration of financial resources, allegedly pilfered under the previous regime.

Still, and no matter what outcome Sanaa faces, the acceleration of security breaches cannot continue while the interim government juggles myriad items on its plate. For now, the federal option promises to be the best available option as Yemenis gain the political maturity to think as a unified nation instead of desperate tribes manipulated by outside forces.


Still, and no matter what outcome Sanaa faces, the acceleration of security breaches cannot continue while the interim government juggles myriad items on its plate. For now, the federal option promises to be the best available option as Yemenis gain the political maturity to think as a unified nation instead of desperate tribes manipulated by outside forces.

Inasmuch as these well-intentioned steps promised to accommodate southern separatist demands for more autonomy, the creation and adoption of a new supreme law for the country and the restitution of large sums of cash to the poorest Arab state that certainly needed it, Hadi's mandate was fully loaded.

Still, the affable interim president was likely to reshuffle his cabinet, perhaps even restructure the consultative upper house of parliament (Majlis al-Shurah), to receive additional backing as he fought rebel forces that opposed his initiatives. Everyone agreed that Hadi faced a truly difficult task. And while critics lambasted the slow pace of the dialogue - nearly 10 months to complete - few appreciated the concrete hurdles placed in front of the country.

The secessionist hurdle

Beyond secessionist concerns, Hadi favoured the six-region option because he did not want to add fuel to the fire, even if the former south would be split into two regions, while the former north would be divided into the remaining four regions. Since southerners strongly opposed proposals for a federation of six units, for fear that the four northern regions would gang-up against them. The decision to proceed was a major compromise on their part and a win for Hadi as the head of state needs all of the nation's elements. Moreover, Sanaa required this southern backing because it also faced uprisings by radical groups outside the political process, notably al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula AQAP and, to a lesser extent, by Houthi rebels.

If everyone was worried that a federal system would dilute whatever powers they held or enjoyed, which was certainly a distinct possibility, Hadi reassured that Yemen's intrinsic make-up of rich tribes would be preserved. Still, his challenge was to devise a mechanism that would preserve the federal system without dominating it, granting local autonomy while empowering federal institutions to serve the entire nation.

According to well-placed sources in Sanaa, the interim president "ruled out" a fresh north-south division of Yemen that, in his view would perpetuate conflicts. In fact, Hadi cannot succeed with, or even appear to want, a full control of nascent institutions because some southerners insisted on complete independence and rejected all compromises. How he proposes to nudge the process through without a repeat of the 1994 civil war that ended the first model of federation, was the proverbial straw that could break the camel's back.

The long-term instability trend

To be sure, Hadi's immediate duty is to put an end to ongoing clashes throughout the country, especially between Houthi rebels who fought the powerful Hashed tribe in several northern cities with no end to the fighting in sight. According to various sources, Houthis were motivated to enlarge their geographic spread, precisely to lay a stake to what they would like to contemplate as their own autonomous region in a putative six-part federation. Some questioned whether Tehran was behind the recent escalation in the fighting, to further ensure a hoped-for-role in a future Yemeni political convention that might settle differences. Naturally, recent Houthi activities drew responses from pro-government Zayidi tribal elements, as well as from Sunni hardline groups that were active in parts of the northern areas of the country.

Still, and no matter what outcome Sanaa faces, the acceleration of security breaches cannot continue while the interim government juggles myriad items on its plate. For now, the federal option promises to be the best available option as Yemenis gain the political maturity to think as a unified nation instead of desperate tribes manipulated by outside forces.

Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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