Yemen: a transition to what?

The Yemeni "transition" agreement brokered by Gulf Cooperation Council states is due to be formally signed on Monday by the ruling party and opposition parties, but there is a lot that could go wrong.

It is reported that President Saleh will not attend the signing ceremony in Riyadh (presumably because he does not want to risk leaving the country), so he will sign it separately beforehand – and only in his capacity as head of his party, the General People's Congress, and not in his presidential capacity. Abdel-Karim al-Iryani, the party's vice-president, will then go to Riyadh for the signing.

Saleh has also threatened to call off the deal if Qatar – one of the six GCC members – attends the ceremony. He accused Qatar of conspiring against Yemen and "inciting and financing chaos" in the country.

None of this augurs well for the success of the agreement. Levels of distrust are high on all sides and it could easily fall apart. 

This is very reminiscent of the antics in 1994 that surrounded the signing of the ill-fated Document of Pledge and Accord and led, just a few months later, to a war between north and south.

The terms of the transition agreement are very unsatisfactory. They seem to have been shaped by the fears of GCC states (and the US in the background) over what might happen once Saleh goes, rather than the actual needs of Yemen at the moment. It is more about preserving continuity and stability than making a clean break with the past. For that reason it's questionable whether what is happening in Yemen can accurately be described at this stage as a revolution, even if the agreement holds long enough to see Saleh to step down.

The first step after the signing is supposed to be a parliamentary vote granting immunity from prosecution to Saleh, his family and associates. This is proving extremely unpopular inside Yemen, though opposition parties seem to have been persuaded to accept it. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both criticised the immunity deal, with the latter warning that Saleh "cannot use his promised immunity from prosecution as a carte blanche to tolerate attacks on peaceful protesters".

Saleh is then supposed to tender his resignation to parliament and leave office within 30 days. There are suggestions that parliament (where Saleh's party has an overwhelming majority) may reject his resignation. If that happens, under the constitution, the president may re-submit his resignation within three months and parliament is obliged to accept it. (it is not clear if the transition agreementrequires him to re-submit it in the event that it is rejected the first time.)

The strung-out 30-day resignation period in the agreement is another potential stumbling block. It appears that during this period the street protests are supposed to cease – though they are unlikely to do so. The protesters, with good reason, don't trust Saleh and Saleh might well use continuing protests to claim that the country still needs him to save it from "chaos".

However, the US seems to have fallen for the idea that quiet on the streets will induce Saleh to go. Its embassy in Sana'a issued a statement hailing the "historic agreement" and urging Yemeni citizens "to demonstrate their commitment to this peaceful transition by avoiding all provocative demonstrations, marches, and speeches in the coming days and to welcome this opportunity to lay the foundation of a strong, peaceful, prosperous Yemen for the future."

Politically, the deal is that Vice-President Hadi would take over as acting president and a new government would be formed, 50% from the ruling party and 50% from opposition parties. Saleh would choose a new prime minister from among the opposition.

Arguments about the composition of this new government could cause further problems and, even if the agreement survives, the timetable for holding a new presidential election, re-drafting the constitution and the fresh parliamentary elections seems hopelessly unrealistic. But the over-riding question is whether the new regime that eventually emerges will be significantly different in character from the old one.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 April 2011.

UPDATE, 30 April, evening: The BBC is reporting that today Salehdid not sign the agreement as had been expected. He apparently has "reservations" about it.