Yemen: the Saleh regime fights back

Events in Yemen over the last few days provide a sharp reminder that despite the resignation of President Saleh and the installation of President Hadi in a one-candidate "election", the Saleh regime remains largely in place. It won't go without a struggle and is still capable of obstructing the internationally-backed transition plan at every turn.

One indication of the difficulties ahead came last month when Saleh's supporters celebrated his 70th birthday as if he were still president. The festivities were accompanied by an electrical power cut in the capital, Sana'a, for which Saleh loyalists are being blamed.

A delegation from Human Rights Watch, returning from a fact-finding visit to Yemen, reported last week:

Sana'a and other cities remain divided into zones controlled by an array of military, paramilitary, and tribal forces, and ... Hadi’s efforts to reorganise them under a central command have stalled. Moreover, with few exceptions, the leadership and membership of these units remain unchanged, despite documentation by Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups of serious violations by their forces, including the Central Security Services, the Republican Guard, and the Political Security and National Security agencies during the 2011 uprising and in previous years ...

Saleh’s relatives and other loyalists of the former president head security forces including the Republican Guard and Central Security, and the civilian leadership in the country has stated that it has no control over these forces.

President Hadi, who served as Saleh's deputy and – unlike Saleh – has no real power base of his own, took his first serious steps towards addressing that problem on Friday with a series of decreesreplacing several key figures in the military, along with four provincial governors and a number of other officials.

This was bound to provoke some resistance and, in anticipation of trouble, ambassadors of the UN Security Council's permanent members, the Gulf Cooperation Council states and the EU immediately issued a statement declaring their support for Hadi's action.

Meanwhile, Yemen-watcher Gregory Johnsen summed up the situation with a tweet which said:

Hard to tell if Hadi is incredibly wise and brave or unspeakably foolish. I guess the results will determine.

One of those ousted by Hadi's decrees was the air force chief, General Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, who is a half-brother of the ex-president. Ahmar refused to go and reportedly made threatsagainst Sana'a airport (which has an air force base nearby). As a result, the airport remained closed throughout Saturday. 

Accounts of what happened at the airport differ. The Yemen Times talks of shells being fired from the air base and al-Sahwa talks of looting at the air base by Ahmar supporters and a threat to shoot down planes. The official version is that "armed groups" fired shots "close to the takeoff and landing areas", prompting closure of the airport for safety reasons.

The airport reopened on Sunday, though it is still unclear whether Ahmar has been persuaded to accept his dismissal.

On Friday there were also reports of sabotage to the capital's electricity supplies – with suspicion again being directed at Saleh loyalists.

Clearing out the old guard is going to be a difficult and lengthy process – and the big question is how far Hadi will be able (or willing) to push it. At this stage, Hadi and his government really ought to be tackling other urgent problems, such as the economy and reconciliation with the Southern Movement and the Houthi rebels, without being constantly undermined by the Saleh diehards.

This, though, is the inevitable result of the "transition" agreement – originally proposed by the GCC states but most actively pursued by the US and Saudi Arabia for reasons that were more connected with their own perceived interests than the demands of the 11-month uprising against Saleh.

The transition process, as set out in the agreement, is now in its second phase (the first phase ended with Hadi's unopposed "election"). During the second phase the following is supposed to happen (Article 19):

(a) Ensuring that the Conference for National Dialogue is convened, and forming a preparatory committee for the Conference, as well as an Interpretation Committee and other bodies established pursuant to this Mechanism;

(b) Establishing a process of constitutional reform that will address the structure of the State and the political system, and submitting the amended Constitution to the Yemeni people in a referendum;

(c) Reforming the electoral system; and

(d) Holding elections for Parliament and the Presidency in accordance with the new Constitution.

All this leaves Saleh with much still to play for – especially since his supporters continue to share power in the national unity government and command a large majority in parliament.

How this plays out will have relevance far beyond Yemen. It also foreshadows what might be expected in Syria if the uprising there results in a negotiated "transition" that removes Assad without also dismantling the Assad regime..

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 April 2012