Having come close but failing to sign three times before, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has finally endorsed a Gulf-brokered agreement. The mandate transfers power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, in exchange for Saleh’s immunity from prosecution. President Saleh’s abdication undoubtedly marks a critical turning point in Yemen’s ongoing civil strife, signaling an important step toward social peace and de-escalation. Nonetheless, serious challenges lie ahead in terms of implementation that will be crucial to the establishment of lasting peace in the country.
The sporadic violence that followed the signing of the deal, particularly in Taiz, seems to suggest that, despite widespread international support, the accord remains vulnerable to Saleh’s tactics, particularly his manipulation of the power-transfer process. Ongoing violence suggests that the act of signing the agreement was insufficient to diffuse tension in Yemen and must be followed by specific measures to prevent Saleh’s continued exploitation of various stakeholders.
The signing of the agreement signifies a key milestone in Yemen. Crucially, it demonstrates that a powerhouse of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia, is politically invested in the transition’s success. Indeed, King Abdullah himself attended the signing, indicating Saudi commitment at the highest level. The king’s reputation is now at stake in ensuring that the agreement is faithfully implemented.
The international community has united in support of a new way forward in Yemen. A number of nations, particularly the United States, joined in a rare global consensus that the GCC-brokered deal was the best course of action for Yemen. Indeed, President Obama praised the signing along with others in the EU, UK and UN.
The agreement calls for an immediate transition of all constitutional authority from President Saleh to Vice President al- Hadi, specifying that Saleh, in his role as honorary president for the next ninety days, does not have the power to veto any of al-Hadi’s decisions. Al-Hadi has notably managed to gain the trust of the opposition. A well-respected military figure, he had the personality to unite the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and regime elements. Al-Hadi is also from the southern part of the country, which has traditionally felt marginalized in national politics and will be particularly important in the next phase of Yemen’s transition, when the future of the southern region will be negotiated.
While the agreement signals the start of a much-needed, highly anticipated transition in Yemen, challenges remain. The most difficult of these will be ensuring that the youth opposition in Change Square, the center of protests in the capital city of Sanaa, accept the legitimacy of the deal. Indeed, the parliamentary opposition represented by the JMP signed the accord with Saleh, and they don’t necessarily have the support of the youth or the majority in the street. The youth opposition who began the current uprising ten months ago represent a real force in Yemen and will challenge any implementation of the agreement without their approval. In fact, the protesters are already questioning the agreement’s legitimacy because it grants immunity to Saleh, a pardon they have always fought against. The question of whether the JMP had the right to grant Saleh immunity on behalf of, for example, the families of those who died in protests in the city of Taiz remains unsettled.
Military and security institutions must also be restructured. The GCC transition agreement states that a committee will look into this issue, raising an important question: Will the regime itself change, or will Saleh simply be removed from power while the regime remains intact? This will probably be the most difficult test in the coming weeks. Failure to remove Saleh’s relatives from military and security apparatuses—such as his son Ahmed, leader of the feared Republic Guards—would keep old-regime figures in power, antagonizing the Change Square youth to resume their uprising.
Four actions will help ensure the success of the GCC-brokered agreement. First, youth protesters need to become involved in the transition process. Although they did not participate in the formulation or signing of the agreement, making it vulnerable to challenge, they can take part in government. By involving them in governance as the opposition and ruling party now present their choices for government representatives, the JMP can bring protesters off the streets, address grievances and facilitate buy-in to the new government.
Second, ensuring the presidential elections are transparent will be critical. Free and fair elections will build popular support for the new president. Third, although the agreement allows Saleh to remain in Yemen, he should leave the country, either on his own accord or through outside encouragement. If he remains in Yemen, Saleh will be in direct contact with regime figures, including the military, raising the threat of future escalation.
Now is the time for the Yemeni people to enjoy the fruit of peace from the agreement. While the agreement was signed on an official level, peace will need to be felt on the street. To this end, economic development must be supported. Yemen’s development challenges, particularly unemployment, must be addressed through sustained and committed international support.
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Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.
[On the U.S. negotiating team at the COP 24 climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland] They work seriously, effectively and knowledgeably. There is only this technical negotiating team, not a political one.