Smiling and chuckling with Saudi leaders, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh seemingly relinquished power last Thursday in Riyadh, signing the controversial Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative after a 10-month long standoff. Unfortunately, in spite of countless hours of work undertaken by the international community, the power transfer is already beginning to seem impotent.
Just a single day after the superficial power transfer, government forces killed five protesters in Sana’a. Chanting, “The revolution will continue, no immunity for murderers,” pro-government plainclothes gunmen opened fire on thousands of demonstrators marching toward the foreign ministry. The Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC), Yemen’s largest protest committee, has even pledged to burn their electoral ID cards — an ominous sign of things to come.
The agreement places Vice President Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi, a man with no political or military power, into the position of president. Hadi, in his first act as president, appointed Muhammad Basendwah, an aging opposition politician, as prime minister. Constitutionally, Yemen’s PM is the head of the government and presides over the parliament. However, the PM’s powers have traditionally been downplayed by the all-encompassing authority of the president. As part of a deal, Basendwah agreed that Hadi will run uncontested in Yemen’s planned presidential election next February. Even in history’s biggest sham elections, dictators at least had the good sense to allow fake opposition candidates to run against them.
As plans for an election are being laid, Saleh himself granted an ambiguous general amnesty to those who committed “follies” during the 10-month long political stalemate. With the ink still wet on the GCC initiative, Saleh is continuing to act as president. He isn’t just clinging to power, it would seem that Saleh is staying in power.
More importantly, the GCC initiative makes no mention of Saleh’s family members still deeply entrenched in military leadership position. His son Ahmed commands the Republican Guards, his eldest nephew Yahya heads the Central Security Forces, and another nephew Ammar runs the National Security Bureau (NSB).
The NSB, similar to Yemen’s internal security and intelligence gathering Political Security Organization (PSO), reports directly to the president and is used as a tool to clamp down on political dissent. Members of Yemen’s southern separatist movement and supporters of the Houthi rebellion have been whisked away in the middle of the night by members of these organizations. Few of them have been seen again to speak of their experiences.. While covering the protest movement in Sana’a, I was often greeted by men dressed in freshly pressed suits and Yemeni flag lapel pins, a strange sight in the midst of tear guys and baseball-size stones being flung through the air, as I escaped from riot police. Being confronted by these men — asking who I was and if I had a camera — I often chose to run back toward the direction of riot police, fearing deportation or detention. While it is less likely that I would come to any physical harm at the hands of these men, my Yemeni colleagues made sure I was instilled with a healthy dose of fear concerning what they were capable of.
Even while flying to Aden last June, I was greeted by the same type of clean-cut men asking similar questions while leaving the airport. Terrified, I simply told him I was a Lebanese businessman and looked back to see several of his colleagues descend upon a foreigner carrying a tripod leaving the same flight. With these men, still loyal to Ammar Saleh, lurking the streets of Yemen’s city, true democracy seems a far-flung ideal.
Looking back on the few months President Saleh spent in Saudi Arabia, we have seen what he is capable of using his son and nephew as his proxy. While out of the country, Republican Guard forces continued to battle anti-government tribesmen in the countryside while the ubiquitous woodland digital camouflage of the Central Security Forces was a common sight at almost all major intersections across the capital. Last September these soldiers carried out a raid on Sana’a’s Change Square, killing upwards of 60 people in a day-long siege of the protest camp — all while Saleh remained outside of the country’s borders.
In spite of the violence and the alleged solution to the political crisis, independent protesters across Yemen have refused to depart from their tent cities. In Sana’a, Taiz, Aden, and Hodeida, protesters refuse to accept Saleh’s immunity from prosecution and demand that his family members be removed from positions of power. Even in the rural governorate of Al-Baydha’, protesters demonstrated on Monday, decrying the GCC initiative and the immunity it granted to Ali Abdullah Saleh. Protesters are equally distrusting of the JMP, the consortium of opposition parties, as they are of the ruling parties. Some protesters have even gone as far as calling the political opposition “traitors”. Across the country, the situation on the ground remains unchanged. Just as in February, protesters across the country are continuing to live inside their protests camps in cities such as Sana’a, Taiz, and Aden. As was the case last Friday, these protesters still come under attack by plainclothes Saleh loyalists. On top of daily protests, major cities are still subject to debilitating power shortages and anti-government tribesmen are still engaged in vicious battles with Loyalist factions of the military.
Giving damning speeches in front of supporters and operating behind the scenes, Saleh remains entrenched in his position of power. Having tricked the diplomatic community into thinking he would sign the GCC initiative three times, it seems his grandest deception has been to mislead them yet again into thinking that he would abide by the deal once he did sign. Yemenis are a scrutinizing people and as long as they remain skeptical of Saleh’s intentions, so should the international community. With rumored sanctions and the freezing of assets put on the table to force Saleh to sign the agreement, similar measures must to be taken to enforce its intention. Saleh has dug in his heels.
For true change to take place in Yemen, both the old guard of day to day politics and the military must be removed, especially members of Saleh’s family. His party, the General People’s Congress, still holds the majority of parliament and may continue to do so after elections with the presence of Saleh loyalist able to make small tweaks to election results. Yemen must start fresh. Like Egypt and the NDP, Yemen’s GPC should be dissolved to allow for a new parliamentarian structure to be built from the ground up. Most importantly, the sons of a deposed dictator must no longer hold sway over the nation’s military. Unless policymakers in the US, EU, GCC, and UN are willing to help Yemenis dislodge Saleh’s presence from the country entirely, his power will be only nominally diminished.