With daily massacres in Homs and prosecution of U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cairo, the simmering conflict in Sanaa has faded into the background. Yet on February 21 attention will turn again to Yemen on the occasion of its presidential election.
The election might seem hollow, as there is only one candidate in the race, however, it is still a pivotal step in Yemen’s political transition — and the United States should use this moment to press for a real shift away from the former regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The national vote could be more aptly named a referendum, as the current Vice President Abed Rabbo Hadi Mansour, who assumed temporary authority via a deal advanced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will be anointed Yemen’s next leader barring any catastrophic outbreaks of violence.
While on the surface the election might seem like window-dressing at best, the psychological impact for Yemen of moving into the next phase is powerful. At a minimum, the election turns the page on decades of disappointment, despair, and disillusionment. And definitively removing Saleh from power could pave the way for opening new space for real political competition and accountable governance. He is a man who has ruled Yemen for 33 years, in his own words, “by dancing on the heads of snakes,” through masterful skill in manipulating tribal alliances, political allegiances, and patronage networks. After prior pledges to leave power were reversed — and months of hand-wringing when Saleh agreed to sign the deal and then three times reneged — just having this official exit stamp is a relief.
Removal of the head does not, however, change the body of the snake. Much deeper changes are necessary, but it is essential to remember that Yemen is not starting from scratch and actually enjoys some advantages over other Arab countries. Unlike Egypt, Yemen has a culture of multi-party competition and coalition politics; unlike Libya, Yemen has a developed parliamentary process with strong committee structures; and unlike Tunisia, Yemen has a history of a dynamic civil society that defends human rights and the freedoms of press and expression. There is a foundation upon which to build in Yemen, but democracy advocates need international assistance and support, not only financial, but moral and ideological as well. If the United States and its allies support a status quo that prioritizes security cooperation at the expense of democratic gains, then the United States will jeopardize the long-term stability and prosperity of the Yemeni people. A weakened Yemen fosters a growing al Qaeda presence, which ultimately compromises U.S. security as well.
The country faces endemic challenges, many of which preceded the conflict, including dire economic conditions, pervasive unemployment, and poor access to clean water, fuel, and electricity for millions of citizens. Then there are the new problems that the GCC deal created, such as a blanket immunity clause for President Saleh and all his cohorts that is proving to be divisive and potentially catastrophic. At the same time, the military and security apparatus is still controlled by Saleh’s son, nephews, and other family members. Furthermore, the deal was agreed upon by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of Yemeni opposition parties, but did not include other important groups with legitimate grievances, such as the southern secessionists, the Houthi rebels in the north, and the non-aligned youth activists.
Despite these shortcomings, the GCC agreement is the current best hope for political transition in Yemen. Assuming that Saleh does indeed depart the stage, the United States and its allies should weigh in forcefully on unresolved issues that will determine whether Yemen emerges as a nation with optimism and hope, or one that is hampered by a legacy of corruption, abuse, and neglect from the past three decades. Specifically, the United States should actively engage its military and intelligence counterparts to ensure that security sector restructuring occurs beyond a superficial level and does not leave the same old power brokers in place that compete for fiefdoms within the country. Since the immunity clause is unlikely to be reversed, the United States should support alternative transitional justice mechanisms to address the wounds of war, and should foster a National Dialogue process that is truly inclusive and incorporates youth voices, which have been largely marginalized up to this point.
To date, U.S. policy has centered on counterterrorism cooperation with Yemeni security forces and assistance to combat al Qaeda operatives. However, it is clear that a policy focused solely on military assistance, weapons, and drone attacks will not eliminate the threat of terrorism toward American targets. The United States should more forcefully advance an approach in Yemen that focuses on economic growth, sustainable development, transparent institutions, and the rule of law in order to create long-term stability that will benefit both the United States and Yemen. Moving forward, the United States and its allies should actively hold the new government accountable for the implementation of the deal, and at the same time, exert every effort to support the democratic forces that are still advocating real, legitimate political change, rather than simply being satisfied with Saleh’s removal.
Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. This essay was originally published on Foreign Policy.