Yemen at a Dangerous Political Impasse

The UN Security Council is considering the adoption of a resolution on Yemen by next week in support of the Arab Gulf mediators who have urged the country’s president to hand over power. Ambassador Abdullah Alsaidi, IPI Senior Fellow and former Yemeni Ambassador to the UN, reviews the recent key events that brought Yemen to a worrying political impasse.

Key Conclusions

The representative of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Jamal Benomar, left the Yemeni capital of Sana’a on October 3rd without securing an agreement on the implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s plan and subsequent peaceful transfer of power.

In the absence of a political solution on the horizon, Yemen is now a step closer to civil war.


Many Yemenis argue that the uprising in Yemen preceded the beginning of the so-called Arab spring. This can be true if one considers the daunting challenges the regime was facing: a secessionist movement in the south; Huthi (Shiite) rebels in the north; and Al-Qaeda taking advantage of the upheaval to gain ground and recruits for its nefarious aims. These challenges were exacerbated by chronic corruption, nepotism, and a lack of serious efforts to extend the writ of the state to areas dominated by tribes, lest President Saleh meet his predecessors’ fate. All these made the traditional opposition very critical of the president’s regime. It was, however, engaged in a dialogue with the opposition.

The Arab Spring ushered in a new era in Arab history. The relative ease with which the people of Tunisia disposed of President Zein Al Abdin Bin Ali led the Yemeni protesters to believe that their regime would be toppled with equal ease. Hundreds of young Sana’a University students, mostly independents, began to call for a regime change. Their protests were first confined to the university campus.

In the beginning, traditional political parties, such as the Socialist Party and the Islah Party (Muslim Brotherhood), ignored the young protestors. However, the movement gained momentum and began to spread to other cities, particularly to Taiz, which historically has been the center of opposition to the repressive policies of the regime.  The collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt on February 11th was an additional impetus for the budding youth movement. The traditional political parties realized that the surge could no longer be contained; hence, it decided to embrace it lest it becomes irrelevant.

The youth movement gained strength and became insurmountable. The traditional political parties, who were not convinced that Saleh’s regime would crumble, tried to manipulate the movement to enhance their negotiating position vis-á-vis the regime. These independent youths resisted the political encroachments, refused a compromise, and insisted on regime change. In the meantime, President Saleh’s regime tried to sow dissension and divert the young people away from the traditional opposition by promisingin a paternalistic mannerto meet their demands if only they form their own political party.

When this strategy failed, the regime decided to violently suppress the increasingly threatening movement. Hence, sharp shooters, at the behest of the regime, committed the massacre of March 18th in which 52 demonstrators were murdered. However, the regime violence not only failed to quell the movement’s determination for change, but also led to mass resignations from the ruling party, the Parliament, and the diplomatic corps.

The most important defection, however, was that of General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar and his First Armored Division. President Saleh, cognizant of the good relations among some in the oppositionthe defecting General and Saudi Arabiadecided to ask Riyadh to mediate.

To minimize the political costs of a failure, the Saudi leadership decided to ask the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to conduct the mediation. The GCC’s foreign ministers agreed on a plan by which President Saleh would transfer his duties to his vice president and, with his family, be granted immunity from prosecution. However, President Saleh never really meant to transfer power to the vice president, and continued to ask for further changes to the plan.  Finally, in late April, he expressed readiness to go along with the plan, thinking that the opposition would reject it.

The traditional opposition was in a predicament of its own: if they accept the GCC plan, they will offend the youth movement, which insisted that President Saleh step down immediately and be put on trial for the crimes his regime committed. But, if the opposition did not go along with the plan, they would lose the GCC.

In the end, the opposition reluctantly went along with the plan. The Secretary-General of the GCC, Abdul-latief Ziani, together with the EU and US ambassadors, were invited to the signing ceremony on May 22nd. The opposition and the ruling party signed, but the president reneged yet again. By refusing to sign, he plunged the country into a political abyss.

With the absence of a political settlement on the horizon, the situation in the country became even further polarized. An attempt on the president’s life, on June 3rd, seriously injured him along with the speakers of the Parliament and the Consultative Council, and the prime minister as well as his two deputies. They were all evacuated to Saudi Arabia for treatment for serious burns.

While in Riyadh, the United States urged President Saleh to transfer power and not return to Yemen; his return, argued John Brennan, President’s Obama’s adviser for counterterrorism, would inflame the situation and pose a serious threat to his life. But the president returned on September 23rd, living up to his well-deserved unpredictable reputation.

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon became worried about the deterioration of the situation and the increased rate of violence against peaceful protesters and escalation of military clashes. In early October, he decided to send an envoy, Jamal Benomar, to help the parties find a way out. The United Nations’ efforts were frustrated by President Saleh’s refusal to transfer power and end his family’s control of the military. Mr. Benomar left Sana’a empty handed. Yemen is now on the brink of war.

Image caption: Anti-government protesters outside Sana’a University on February 25, 2011 chant for a new Yemen.