Yemen's ambivalent transition

Yemen has become the focus for "two quite different and fundamentally contradictory phenomena", Sheila Carapico, an American political scientist, told the London conference on Yemen last week. One of them is an uprising for social justice and and the other is "a not-so-covert military intervention, including extrajudicial executions and other operations that are pretty much the antithesis of what you would mean by support for democracy".

Culturally, politically and sociologically, the protest movement that emerged in 2011 – in which women and youth played an important role – was unprecedented in Yemeni history and certainly in the whole Arabian peninsula, she said.

"It's related to the almost simultaneous uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that led to the removal of long-standing dictators in those two places, but also with a tremendously indigenous Yemeni local flavour. Compared with either Egypt or Tunisia, Yemenis stayed in the streets longer, they were incredibly tenacious, incredible determined ...

"In spite of the fact that Yemen is so well armed it didn't turn violent in anything like the same way as Syria or Libya. Although there has been violence, the uprising itself has been nonviolent and peaceful – and that's very important.

"Regardless of the outcome, and the outcome is certainly tenuous and uncertain, something very significant has happened already, in terms of the mass expression of popular aspirations for social justice and free democracy."

Parallel with that, the United States has become increasingly involved in Yemen militarily – even though it doesn't really have a policy on Yemen. Instead, Carapico said, the US has two related policies. One is a long-standing commitment to the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and the GCC states. The other is America's anti-terrorism policy in which Yemen is treated as an extension of the AfPak theatre.

Viewed from Washington, Carapico said, Yemen is not a real place where people are demanding social justice and democracy so much as it is a theatre of operations in Saudi Arabia's backyard.

"Yemenis, now, are confronting the confluence of these two very disparate historical junctures," she continued. 

"The so-called GCC initiative is a crisis resolution initiative. It's intended to maintain stability in Yemen, to avoid too much upheaval, in particular to avoid upheaval that might spill into Saudi Arabia or upset the stability of the other Gulf countries. It's not, by any stretch of imagination (as conceived by the GCC) intended to respond to the popular demands."

Despite that, Carapico noted, the GCC initiative has given rise to the Yemeni National Dialogue which is due to start next month. She warned that this is going to be "a very difficult path", but the dialogue needs to address the building of a civil state in Yemen as well as questions of regional stability.

Two other speakers on the same panel – Adam Seitz and Ludmila du Bouchet – discussed civil-military relations inside Yemen.

Referring to President Hadi's "momentous" decrees in December formally restructuring Yemen's military command, Bouchet said the significance of this lies in its political nature: "If implemented, this will put an end to the military disjuncture that has beset Yemen since 2011, and the political gridlock." But she added that it is still unclear how far this reform will herald a "systemic break" with the past. 

She then outlined the legacy of state-society relations under Saleh and the political economy underpinning it – in which the military has been an integral part. 

"The military is not seen as being restricted to self-evidently military matters. The military is inherently bound up with Yemen's social, economic and political relations."

The political crisis of 2011 "revolved to a large extent around inter- and intra-elite struggles and negotiations for power that have taken place right at the heart of Saleh's inner circles and have been manifested in rifts within the military".

The uprising both revived and engaged long-standing personal differences as well as deep-seated fissures. One illustration of this, she said, was "the military stand-off that characterised Sanaa until recently" where the city had been divided into areas each controlled by a military faction.

Under President Saleh, distribution of power did not lie with formal institutions but instead with "informal, highly personalised ad hoc rent-based patronage networks". She continued: "Saleh shored up his position partly by multiplying competing forces within the army and partly by creating new ones outside it."

As a result, it is still impossible to accurately quantify the number of troops in the regular army, she said. "Far from being a well-bounded cohesive professional body dedicated to the provision of national defence, the regular army acts as a loose social and economic institution specifically as a social safety net on a par with the civil service." It has also been a means for integrating certain tribes and rewarding them.

"However historically momentous, Yemen's uprisings have not produced a revolution as conventionally understood," Bouchet said. "The GCC-brokered transition agreement is based on an elite compromise. This predicament holds the potential for what is most promising and most ambivalent about Yemen's transition and National Dialogue conference."

Returning to President Hadi's military restructuring, Bouchet said there is a distinct possibility that General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and Saleh's son, Ahmad (the two most problematic figures) will retain military command in the new security architecture. "Both have retained their military position, both have retained the colossal business interests that they built, and the patronage networks that surround these positions." 

This raises the question of the persistence of authoritarian enclaves within the framework of democratic transition, she said.

President Hadi – Saleh's replacement – has also shown a preference for appointing individuals from his family, his clan and his home region of Abyan which leads some Yemenis to suspect they may be witnessing the creation of new patronage networks in place of the old ones.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 January 2013