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National Security / FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Yemen Elections Are Opportunity for Change, But True Reform Still Ahead

photo of Sara Sorcher
February 21, 2012

Don’t cheer for the triumph of democracy in Yemen just yet. Voters flocked to polling stations to elect a new leader on Tuesday, formally sealing the fate of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. After more than a year of protests and nearly 1,500 dead, Saleh is now the fourth autocrat deposed by the Arab Spring.

The vote was largely symbolic, with only one candidate on the ballot: sitting Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Analysts watching the Arab state say this so-called “election” could be an opportunity to finally stop the bloodshed – but it’s a long, difficult road ahead for true change, with high stakes for the fragmented country’s stability and Washington’s interests in the region.

“This is the beginning," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday. "This is an interim stage in their democratic governance. And obviously, after they have a new constitution, our expectation is it will lead to full, free, fair, multiparty, multicandidate elections, both for the Legislature and for the executive." That Tuesday’s ballot didn't include any options, Nuland added, is “obviously … not an end state for a true democracy.”

 

The election was the culmination of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s push to broker a deal — and Washington’s loud support of that framework for transition. “But none of the political issues that came to the forefront during the past year of fighting and protesting have been solved, and none of the political players that have been involved have left the scene,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University. Even Saleh, in New York undergoing medical treatment for wounds sustained during an attack on his presidential compound, is exempt from prosecution and may return to Yemen.

The former “enemies” who fought each other during the months of turmoil all came out to support Hadi as the consensus compromise candidate, Johnsen said.  These include Saleh’s relatives, who hold powerful positions in Yemen’s security apparatus; longtime Saleh ally Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who defected to the protesters early last year; and the head of Yemen’s largest tribe, Sadeq al-Ahmar.  

Johnsen speculated that many of those politically elite powers feel as though they can manipulate Hadi into complying with their interests. “Everybody is talking very nice right now,” Johnsen said. “ … The key question is going to be when some of these political players want something to happen, and Hadi has to make a difficult choice and go against one of these entrenched interest groups. [Will they] then try to impose their will by force ... again take guns to the streets?”

The biggest issue will be the reform of the military and security institutions in Yemen in accordance with the GCC agreement, said Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center. Saleh’s son is the leader of the Republican Guards; his half brother leads the air force; his nephew is head of the Central Security Forces, to name a few. “Part of the reform will be tested on if [Hadi] will be able to fire them … because I don’t think the people in Yemen are ready to accept these figures to keep their positions,” Sharqieh said.

Leaving Saleh's regime intact, Sharqieh said, would undermine the political process. “But changing them is not easy. They are very powerful people.” Saleh's family was also granted immunity from prosecution.

Hadi does enjoy some political advantages. Even though he served as vice president and defense minister under Saleh, Hadi hails from the southern governorate of Abyan and was not considered part of Saleh’s inner circle. “He hasn’t been really a political heavyweight,” said former ambassador to Yemen David Newton, who met Hadi during his seven years serving in the country. “He certainly seems like a stable and decent person, well respected.… Not everybody is satisfied, but I think for the moment people are pretty tired.”

Hadi doesn’t have a powerful base of supporters, Newton added, which is an asset -- for now. “Because he doesn’t have a particular base in one place or another, that makes him the obvious consensus candidate.” 

Washington’s key priority in Yemen is its fight against al-Qaida. With militants able to make tactical gains in the restive tribal areas during the months of fighting, the Obama administration has been working to lay the groundwork for counterterrorism cooperation in Yemen after Saleh departs. Obama's top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan visited Yemen this week, and told The Washington Post that the domestic upheaval hasn't affected U.S. counterterrorism cooperation with the Yemeni troops targeting leaders from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in June  that the “communication has been quite effective” between the U.S. and Hadi’s interim government.

The hot-button issue for many Yemenis is the country's already frail economy, which has been ravaged even more by the clashes. Because the U.S. and GCC directly helped orchestrate this transition, the credibility of outside brokers now rests on the incoming leader’s success. “This is the only case where we see the leadership of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in managing this,” Sharqieh said. “This new elected president must deliver and if he doesn’t deliver he’s going to fail and everyone supporting him is going to fail too. The consequences are a nightmare.”

Already, Johnsen said, there are “artificially inflated expectations” on the part of the Yemeni people. “They seem to believe that Ali Abdullah Saleh is the root of all their problems, and removing him would somehow solve all these things,” he said. “What I think is going to happen is all the people who voted today in Yemen will wake up and the reality they remember from when they first took to the streets … is the same one they are going to face tomorrow.”

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