Yemen: a fresh start or more of the same?

Today is the 21st birthday of the Republic of Yemen, formed when the separate northern and southern states agreed to merge. May 1990 was a brief moment of hope in Yemen's history. Newspapers and new political parties proliferated, unhampered by government restrictions, and shortly afterwards Yemen became the first country in the Arabian pensinsula to hold competitive elections under universal suffrage.

Needless to say, those early hopes were not fulfilled. Politics aside, Yemen today is on the brink of becoming a failed state and its economic predicament is dire. By no means all of Yemen's problems can be laid at the door of President Saleh – even at the best of times it is a difficult country to govern – but many of them can. During the last few years especially, he has become increasingly domineering and more focused on clinging to power than on governing properly. Even if he served a useful purpose at one time, he clearly doesn't now.

On Saturday, opposition parties signed the "transition" deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council which provides for Saleh's departure, and there are expectations that Saleh himself will sign it today.

Saleh has balked at signing once before but this time, under pressure from the US, it seems likely that he will do so, despite his wild protestations that the result will be a takeover by al-Qaeda. There also seems to be sufficient international pressure now to ensure that once he has signed he will have to go through with his resignation; he will not be able to wriggle out of it as he had probably hoped.

Apart from the disgraceful inclusion of immunity from prosecution in the GCC deal, the most contentious issue is whether Saleh's resignation on GCC terms will actually amount to regime change. Protesters on the streets are accusing the official opposition of betrayal and on Twitter the deal has been described as "a coup for Saudi Arabia".

There is a lot to be said for that view. The Saudi-dominated GCC, while accepting that Saleh must go, is determined to ensure that it happens with minimal upheaval – and without drastic changes in the way the country is run it is difficult to see how Yemen's problems can be seriously tackled.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 May 2011. 

UPDATE, 10.00 BST, 22 May: Tweets from Yemen say Saleh is prevaricating again. Apparently he will not sign unless opposition parties come to the palace and sign again in his presence. The opposition parties are refusing, since they have already signed.

Saleh's antics at this stage will not do him any good. They are simply going to annoy the GCC and the US, leading to more international pressure for him to go.