During a recent visit to Yemen, I was sitting in a cafe in Sana when we suddenly experienced a power outage. I asked the waiter what happened, and he replied: “Saleh’s men keep attacking the main power plant in Mareb to disrupt life in Sana. Saleh is still working against the revolution. He won’t give up.”
Regardless of the real causes of the outage, the waiter’s explanation reflected a general sense that the uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his aides is far from over.
Officially, the uprising, which was inspired by the Arab Spring and led to hundreds of deaths, ended last February when the former vice president, Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was installed as president. But many Yemenis do not believe that Saleh has entirely exited the political scene after 33 years of authoritarian rule over the poor, deeply divided country.
Some progress has been made under the new president. By and large, change and uprising in Yemen are proceeding on parallel tracks, and unless the international community provides Yemen with serious support these tracks may collide — with dire domestic and regional consequences.
Some Yemenis have blamed the opposition for signing the power transfer deal that removed Saleh from power without insisting on making his immunity conditional on his retirement from political activity. The terms of immunity allow Saleh to exercise politics in any capacity he wishes other than the presidency, while also completely shielding him from prosecution. Saleh still serves as president of his General People’s Congress party, which makes many Yemenis nervous about his plans.
“He is like a ghost,” my waiter said. “You don’t see him but you certainly feel his presence.”
Young revolutionaries fear their uprising has not yet achieved its goals. Six months since the signing of the power transfer deal, there are still thousands of tents in Sana’s Change Square. Protesters continue pressing their demands as they have for months.
A revolutionary culture permeates the area, with political slogans, leaflets, music and youths discussing politics around the clock. Almost all political parties are represented at information centers in the square — liberals, Islamists, socialists and secularists. Even the Houthis, a militant rebel group that has fought six wars against the central government, still operate an information center tent called “Shabab al-Somoud” (Steadfast Youth).
Preparing for what seems to be a long stay in Change Square, the Nobel Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman upgraded her tent to accommodate her family, a secretary and a space to meet visitors. The “Nobel Tent” makes a blunt statement: The Yemeni uprising is no longer a fully domestic affair but has a global dimension and will continue until the uprising’s objectives have been fully met.
Yemen’s transition, unlike others in the region, was met with unanimous support from the international community, which has positioned Hadi strongly to deal with the multiple challenges he faces. Indeed, President Obama’s recent threat to freeze the assets of “those trying to disrupt the political transition” sent a clear message to Hadi’s rivals about the strong American stance on Yemen.
Hadi has used this robust international support to change the balance of power in his country. He succeeded in sidelining General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, the air force chief and Saleh’s half brother, as well as Tareq Saleh, a commander of a powerful brigade in Sana and Saleh’s nephew, significantly boosting the president’s power and popularity.
The partnership between Hadi and the U.S. administration undoubtedly extends to the fight against Al Qaeda. For Hadi, defeating the group is crucial for several reasons. He needs to distance himself from his predecessor by proving his sincerity about routing Al Qaeda. This will earn him the trust of the international community. Furthermore, winning the war against Al Qaeda will pave the way for restoring security and stability in Yemen.
Hadi has thus far been successful in restoring order in the city of Louder, and the army says it now controls most of Zinjibar, a known Qaeda stronghold. But the suicide bombing at a military parade rehearsal in Sana on May 21, which killed nearly 100 soldiers, highlights Al Qaeda’s effort to shift the battleground from the south to Sana.
Although these successes are important, they will not transform Yemen into a stable, functioning nation. It will take more than defeating Al Qaeda and sidelining Saleh’s allies for Hadi to win the hearts and minds of Yemenis.
Above all, Hadi must quickly deliver desperately needed services to the people. Yemen is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by recent clashes, and aid must be delivered before it is too late. In my discussions with tribal members, “looming starvation” was mentioned several times.
In addition, power outages happen many times a day, complicating attempts at economic recovery and stalling efforts to resume normal daily life. Frustrated by the frequency of power outages, it is no surprise that the waiter I spoke to believes that Saleh’s men are behind these disruptions. Although it is not required under the power transfer agreement, Saleh’s departure to another country could restore some needed credibility to the political process in Yemen.
Yemen’s problems can be solved, but the international aid community must step in immediately if the country is to stave off a looming disaster.