What to Watch for in Yemen's Transition of Power

Last Wednesday, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed a controversial power transfer agreement. Saleh is to resign within 30 days of the document’s signing, and Vice President Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi will assume presidential powers until a new president is sworn in following elections set for February 21, 2012.

Given Saleh’s previous intransigence and wily reputation, many are skeptical that he intends to follow the transition plan in good faith. Even in the unlikely event that Saleh steps down without any attempt to informally retain his authority, there are may other unanswered questions. Here’s what to watch for in the coming months:

1. How will independent protesters react? The most controversial part of the agreement is a clause that presumably grants Saleh and his associates immunity from prosecution. After more than 10 months of state-sponsored violence and hundreds of deaths, demonstrations protesting immunity and seeking to hold Saleh and his government accountable will likely continue. Additionally, the new government could face legitimacy issues, as its creation would be tied to the same document granting these immunities.

2. Will the government forcibly clear protest camps? Protests at some level will continue. The government could easily use the signing of the deal as an excuse to clear protesters from their sit-in camps, claiming that their demands have been met and they no longer have cause to continue. If this proves to be the case, expect protesters and armed opposition factions to pose an early challenge the initiative’s viability.

3. Will military operations cease? Details on a planned “restructuring” of the armed forces remain vague. As long as current military commanders remain in place, especially those related to Saleh, an important question is whether present operations will continue. These include a campaign against anti-regime tribesmen in towns north of Sana’a and clashes with tribesmen-backing protesters in the southern city of Taiz. The answers all appear tied to whether and for how long Saleh’s relatives in the military retain their positions of authority and whether they will resist if and when pressure mounts to remove them. 

4. What impact will the deal have in Yemen’s south? Many in southern Yemen have viewed this year’s political crisis as an outgrowth of northern tribal politics, which Yemenis from the South see as backward. Over the course of this year secessionist sentiment has grown. The interim unity government could give secessionists an opportunity to address their grievances within the context of a unified Yemen, but some still doubt that the Sana’a based opposition takes the southern issue seriously and could resist any form of direct northern rule.

5. What role does Maj. Gen. Ali Muhsin al Ahmar now play? Ahmar’s troops are still deployed in Sana’a. According to a Xinhua report, the GCC deal calls for the formation of a committee to direct the removal of “armed elements” from the capital, but a quick return to the barracks for his brigade appears unlikely as long as government forces remain a threat to protesters and Muhsin’s interests. This brigade’s future is a potential source for further conflict. The brigade could attempt to remain an independent force ensuring application of the transition plan, while Saleh allies could treat it as just another “armed element” to be cleared away. The brigade’s eventual reintegration into the state's armed forces depends on the sympathies of those officers who retain command.

These challenges will set the immediate tone for power transition, peaceful or otherwise, and will figure prominently as Saleh weighs how to maneuver the situation during what could be his last days in office.

Photo Credit: Sallam

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Paul Leuck

Paul is a Master's degree candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where he specializes in international economics and Middle East studies. He previously worked as a language school administrator in Yemen and has also evaluated USAID international development programs in Yemen, Russia, and multiple sub-Saharan African countries. Other interests include cheesecake, Notre Dame football, and throwing shade at overblown internet outrage.

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