Yemen, Hailed as Model, Struggles for Stability
Source : The New York Times, By ROBERT F. WORTH, 21/02/2103
SANA, Yemen — The tents at the heart of this city’s Change Square are now almost empty of protesters, and the canvas flaps quietly in the breeze. Two years after the start of its democratic uprising, Yemen has a new president and is in the midst of a lumbering transition process that has been held up by the Obama administration as a model for resolving Syria’s bloody civil war.
In some ways, the transition here has achieved a relative calm, while Egypt and Syria are in violent upheaval. Yemen, having pulled back from the brink of war in 2011, is slowly embarking on a national dialogue aimed at reconciling its rancorous political factions, under the watchful eyes of Arab and Western monitors.
Yet many Yemenis now doubt that anything substantial has changed and fear that the much-hailed “Yemen model” is enshrining a fragile stability at a time when decisive action is needed.
Beyond the capital, the country is more rudderless than ever. The south is in the grip of a surging independence movement, and sectarian tensions are rising dangerously in the north. The economy is a shambles. All of the same troublesome political players — including the still-powerful former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh — remain, and the new president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has struggled to assert himself against them.
“I have never felt the anxiety I feel now,” said Sami Ghalib, a political analyst and former newspaper editor. “There was always geographical conflict, but now it is turning ideological. There are assassinations taking place everywhere. And at the helm, we have a leader who behaves like Saleh but doesn’t even have his political skills.”
Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Hadi is a virtual recluse who rarely speaks in public and has failed to offer a clear vision for addressing any of the crises afflicting the country. His fierce praise for the American drone-strike program, which is unpopular here, has further eroded his small base of public support. He is widely said to fear for his life and has appointed many family members and old allies to security positions.
Some progress has been made. A military campaign last year recaptured several southern towns from the jihadist militants who had controlled them for more than a year. But most of the fighters seem to have melted back into the population, and in the wake of the military’s withdrawal, large areas of the south remain a checkerboard of mysterious armed groups with no government presence.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate has adopted a new tactic: a ruthless campaign of assassinations that has left 74 military and intelligence officers dead since the start of last year, according to Interior Ministry officials. Almost all of the killings have been carried out by masked gunmen on motorcycles — often with pistols equipped with silencers — and only a few suspects have been arrested.
Mr. Hadi’s supporters point out that he inherited a fearsome set of challenges. He took office a year ago under the terms of a phased transition plan brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a Saudi-led regional body, with the support of the United States and other Western powers. He was the consensus candidate inside Yemen largely because he lacked an independent power base and was therefore inoffensive to the tribal and military chiefs who wield real influence. His primary task was to undermine those chiefs, whose corrupt systems of patronage constitute one of the main obstacles to any real change.
Some analysts and diplomats give Mr. Hadi credit for a slow, steady effort to disarm his rivals. “He understood that the only way to undermine Saleh was by initially allying himself with Ali Muhsin,” the powerful general who defected to the opposition during the 2011 protests, said a European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity, under diplomatic protocol.
Mr. Hadi has removed a number of military commanders loyal to the former president. In December, he announced a broad restructuring of the military that reassigned both Mr. Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, and Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar — two of the most powerful military figures in Yemen. However, both men wield power mostly through networks of patronage and tribal influence. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Hadi, who lacks such networks, will follow through on his efforts to weaken them.
He must also contend with a southern independence movement that has grown so large over the past year that some Yemeni officials say they fear it will lead to war, if left unchecked. On Jan. 13, a rally in the southern coastal city of Aden drew tens of thousands of angry protesters. Although the movement’s leaders are divided, they all reject the Gulf Cooperation Council’s transition plan as a northern document, and almost all have refused to take part in the national dialogue.
Actual secession by the south — which was a separate country until 1990 — is unlikely in the absence of firmer leadership and foreign support. But the movement has grown more radical by the day, complicating efforts to restore governance.
In a paradox, Mr. Hadi is a southerner and was chosen in part on the premise that this would help him to placate the secessionists. Instead, he is widely hated in the south, in part because he is seen as a pillar of the northern political system after serving for 18 years as Mr. Saleh’s deputy.
“Hadi could still win back the south, or at least calm the situation there, if he made the right gestures,” said Abdel Ghani al-Iryani, an expert in Yemeni politics. “But he is not a bold political actor.”
Another rising threat is the growth of an increasingly violent and sectarian confrontation between two of Yemen’s largest political groups. One of those groups, known as the Houthi movement, is led by radical adherents of a variant of Shiite Islam and has been accused of receiving support from Iran. Its followers have clashed repeatedly with youths from Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party and the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This conflict has taken on aspects of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia — which supports Islah — and Iran, with troubling Sunni-Shiite overtones. The Houthis have grown increasingly strident, holding vast public rallies modeled after those of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement. The two groups regularly malign each other in sectarian terms — a new occurrence in Yemen — and on several occasions, rallies have devolved into rock-throwing and even gun battles between members of the two camps.
“Everybody is worried about this,” said Najib Ghalib, the chairman of the Jazeera Studies Center in Sanaa. “Hadi needs to cool things down, but he hasn’t.”
Instead, Mr. Hadi is said to be placing his energy and hopes in the national dialogue, an unwieldy political conference that was mandated in the transition plan.
The dialogue, which has been repeatedly delayed, will bring together 565 representatives of Yemen’s various political groups, in numerous subcommittees and plenary sessions over a six-month period. The idea, diplomats say, is to undertake a group process that will itself be therapeutic, even if the dialogue yields few consensual decisions about Yemen’s political future.
Skeptics abound, in part because some of the most intransigent political groups, like the Houthis and the southern separatists, refuse to participate.
Mr. Hadi, like his predecessor, appears to have paid little attention to the economy, despite some dire indicators. The deficit for the coming year is $3.17 billion out of a total budget of $12.6 billion. Half of that deficit remains unfinanced, and the government paid $2.8 billion in subsidies alone in 2012, mainly to offset the cost of fuel for Yemen’s desperately poor population. Last year, Saudi Arabia donated $2 billion in fuel products, and “that saved us,” said one senior Finance Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But can we count on that in the future?”
On a recent afternoon, a Yemeni political activist named Radhia al-Mutawakel watched as images of violent protesting in Egypt flared on a television screen.
“I envy the Egyptians,” Ms. Mutawakel said. “There, the independent activists at least have a voice. Here, we have none. There, they have a unified army. Here, everything is divided, and nothing has changed.”