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Why the managed transition after Yemen’s uprising led to war

- February 18, 2016
Militants loyal to Yemen’s exiled government ride atop a tank they seized from Houthi militiamen in the country’s central city of Taiz, on Aug. 17, 2015. (Reuters)

The past five years in Yemen offer a bleak opportunity to reckon with failure. When protests began in January 2011, many Yemenis dared to hope for meaningful political change. Today, after the collapse of a poorly designed political transition and a year of ferocious war, the country’s urban areas have been rendered unlivable, 21.2 million people are in need of immediate humanitarian aid, residents of Yemen’s largest city live under siege conditions, and a civilian population with close to 2.5 million internally displaced persons is effectively trapped as the result of a naval and air blockade.

Yemen’s horrific conditions today directly follow from the systematic conceptual and political failures of those who designed and administered the plan for a managed transition from the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This Gulf Cooperation Council plan directly contradicted the primary goals of the 2011 uprising. After sustaining an 11-month uprising against prodigious odds, Yemenis found themselves shackled to a transitional agreement designed by a coterie of monarchs to protect the vested interests of a plutocratic elite.

It is safe to say that five years on, the GCC transition plan has fully failed – for many of the reasons about which Yemeni activists warned from the outset.

A central organizing slogan of the 2011 popular uprising in Yemen was “No tribes, no parties — our revolution is a youth revolution.” Although it was catchier in Arabic, it is easy enough to see that the popular protesters rejected the partisan landscape, including the formal opposition, as a whole. Those protesters were not a marginal or elite phenomenon. They included hundreds of thousands of diverse Yemenis, not only in the capital, Sanaa, but also in rural areas who flocked to local “change squares” across the country.

Yemen has the youngest population in a very young region. It’s clear why Yemenis might take issue with an ossified political class that had delivered little in the face of two decades of encroaching authoritarianism dressed in parliamentary clothes. Indeed, from the vantage of 2016, the whole of the 2000s reads as a record of the regime’s gradually tightening grasp over the only node of opposition it could effectively manage and suppress and its failure to deal with the escalating crises of insurgency (in the north), secession (in the south) and episodic acts of extremist violence.

Yet the transitional agreement invested in precisely that partisan political class, crafting a transitional government composed of members of the former ruling party and a handful of allied opposition parties known as the Joint Meeting Parties. This left the bulk of the population unrepresented, with “outreach” efforts mandated by the transitional framework only partially and imperfectly undertaken. The parties, for their part, created more distance between themselves and their members by suspending internal democratic practices when their constituents wanted more accountability. Major insurgent and secessionist groups were left out of the new governing coalition, and the security-sector reforms necessary to successfully combat violent challenges to the transition were late arriving and similarly incomplete.

The National Dialogue Conference played a pivotal role, both signaling Yemen’s political unraveling and contributing to it. Marred by obstructionism, it unfolded in a climate of increasing everyday violence. While the NDC was far more inclusive than other institutional components of the transitional framework, that inclusivity only cast into bolder relief how few voices were included in the substantive processes of transitional governance. In effect, the NDC provided groups with a voice but no real role in decision-making. When the NDC proved unwieldy, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi simply worked around it with more manageable — but still less representative and wholly unaccountable — working groups.

After the NDC’s conclusion, participating Yemenis were sent back to their corners in order to await the real work of governing, much of it done by presidential appointees and, in some cases, ad hoc committees. The release of a plan for federal districting by one such committee is often cited as the proximate cause of the war, as the draft was categorically rejected by the Houthis and their armed takeover of Sanaa soon followed. But it also speaks to fundamental tensions produced by a transitional framework that sought to contain “spoilers,” without mechanisms to ensure accountability to large sections of the population.

The current war’s consequences will be far-reaching in ways that require Yemeni and international actors alike to rethink some of their assumptions about who and what matters in Yemen and why.

The organized political parties — already substantially challenged during the uprising and transition— are now arguably irrelevant. The goal of “restoring the Hadi government,” as such, has increasingly given way to other imperatives for all concerned. Going into this war — the first five months of which, the head of the Red Cross concluded, caused as much destruction as three years of war in Syria — Yemeni lives and livelihoods were already precarious, as the country ranked last or at the bottom of the region in a whole host of human development indicators, and it was already struggling with the effects of pervasive insecurity during the transitional period.

That said, the scale of destruction of infrastructure, housing and resources produced by 11 months of open war means that an already impoverished population will struggle to account for an internal displacement crisis and to secure the most basic of needs in at least 10 governorates that are experiencing a Phase 4 food emergency and are on the edge of famine. None of the current factions in Yemen’s internationalized civil war show the willingness to prioritize these first-order civilian needs. Instead, there is evidence that both the Saudi-led coalition backing President Hadi and the Houthi-Saleh alliance control access to resources and the movement of goods and people. Most damning is that fact that the region with the least violence and greatest food security is Hadramawt, under the local control of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) since April 2015. All parties, from the members of the Saudi-led coalition and its U.S. and British allies to the Houthis themselves, should be able to coalesce around the rejection of this condition. Instead, internally displaced Yemeni people are finding shelter in Mukallah under AQAP governance.

It is hard to envision an end to this war that either side — assuming there are only two, which is true only at the very broadest level — would consider a victory in military terms. The window for victory for the Saudi-led coalition has already passed. Ground forces aligned with the Houthis and Saleh loyalists — mainly irregular forces, albeit with some heavy weapons — have held a coalition with clear air and naval superiority at bay for nearly a year. Yet even in the unlikely case that either of these two groups managed to secure a military victory, there is little reason to believe that the Yemen they would inherit would be one that they could govern in any real sense. At the same time, many Yemenis will be loathe to turn to international actors to resolve this crisis, given the role of the United Nations and the GCC in laying the foundations for the conflict to begin with.

In light of serious allegations that coalition forces have been deliberately targeting Yemeni civilians and have used prohibited cluster munitions, several countries are now publicly questioning arms sales to Saudi Arabia and considering ways to promote greater accountability through the United Nations. British members of Parliament have called from the floor of the House of Commons for a halt to weapons sales, Germany has backed out of a weapons deal and Canadian support for existing deals is wavering. Recently, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, called on his colleagues to consider the same.

While such moves might help to bring about more serious negotiations to end the war, any internationally brokered post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction process will have to contend with the same issues of inclusivity and accountability that were neglected in the 2011 transitional agreement. This time, however, the stakes will be higher, as planners will have to face the dual challenge of demobilizing militias and serving a polarized and devastated society. Until that time, the war goes on.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon” (I.B. Tauris, 2013). This piece is part of a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings after five years.