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Yemen’s transition to political stability was doomed to fail. Here’s why.

- October 27, 2015
Fighters loyal to Yemen’s exiled president, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, stand on top of the al-Qahira Castle, located on the highest mountain in Yemen’s third city Taez, after they seized it from rebel fighters on Aug. 18. (AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Yemen’s exiled government in Riyadh agreed to talks with the Houthis, a social movement and militia from northern Yemen, in an attempt to move the country out of conflict. It remains highly unlikely, however, that the country will get back on track of stabilization, much less the political transition process — initially seen as a model for peaceful transition.

In the past seven months, in order to restore the transitional government in Sanaa, the Saudi-led coalition has attempted to push the Houthis out of territories and state institutions it had been occupying since September 2014, albeit with limited success. It would be wrong to assume, however, that it was merely the Houthis’ takeover or the Saudi military intervention that derailed the transition process. Rather, the starting point of the transition, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, was ill-conceived, as it empowered the old elites. These elites vying for power in Sanaa — as well as their regional and international backers — used the process to further their own interests, thereby excluding considerable parts of the population, weakening state institutions and ultimately derailing the process.

Backed by the United States, European Union and United Nations, the GCC in 2011 forged an agreement among Yemeni elites to prevent a civil war through a peaceful transfer of power. The agreement included a power-sharing arrangement between the old ruling elites in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the alliance of traditional opposition parties, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). It did not, however, include any representatives of the countrywide protest movements.

Transitional President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a former confidant of Saleh, confirmed in a non-competitive election in early 2012, was tasked to implement the GCC Initiative. His legitimacy and international support therefore rested on a successful implementation of the transition road map. Former president Saleh, in contrast, had an interest in undermining the agreement’s implementation to guarantee his family’s continued access to power.

Yemen’s most powerful tribal family, the Ahmars, and Saleh’s former ally, Gen. Ali Mohsin, took sides against the former president: Together with Islah, widely seen as the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, they supported the transition process as long as it guaranteed their access to state resources. Thus, although the GCC Initiative constrained the main elite factions, they continued to compete for power and access to state institutions and resources, employing their networks in the army, political parties, tribes and the media.

In the first phase of the GCC Initiative’s implementation (from 2011 to 2013), focused on the restructuring of the security apparatus, Hadi and his supporters were able to use large-scale security sector reform to remove many (but by no means all) Saleh loyalists from the armed forces.

Despite considerable resistance, the reforms were pushed through with the help of international support, as well as the support of Islah and their tribal and military backers. The latter were emboldened by the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory in Egypt in 2012 and by the revolutionary legitimacy they had received through their participation in the 2011 protests.

Thus Islah served Hadi to counterbalance Saleh loyalists throughout the restructuring process. As a result the power balance shifted towards a new alliance around Hadi and Islah, with officers loyal to them rising through the ranks of the military. At the same time, the restructuring process remained largely limited to an exchange of personnel and stopped short of measures that would have enhanced professionalization. Still, Saleh and his opponent Ali Mohsin retained informal influence within the armed forces through loyalists in lower ranks, negatively affecting the government’s coercive power.

The internationally-backed National Dialogue Conference (NDC), in the second phase of the transition (from 2013 to 2014), was conceived as a platform to forge national consensus on how to resolve long-standing conflicts in the country as well as on constitutional principles. Although the outcomes of the NDC were progressive in terms of political freedoms and civil rights, the conference did not consensually resolve one of the most crucial issues: namely the question of what a federal state would have to look like to resolve the conflict with the independence movement in the south.

With violence escalating on the ground, deteriorating living conditions and no solution to the main conflicts of the country found in the NDC, Hadi’s strength in the conference ­— mirrored in nominations and procedures — did not translate into power on the ground. In the context of political bargaining, blackmailing, frequent assassinations, as well as armed confrontations between Islah and the Houthis, Hadi’s legitimacy became increasingly strained. Cheered on by Western praise for the NDC’s successful conclusion, Hadi nevertheless pressed on with the transition process. In the south, where the opposition to the NDC outcomes was the strongest, protest was repressed violently.

After the conclusion of the NDC in early 2014, the third phase of the transition intended for the implementation of the NDC outcomes, was characterized in reality by the Houthis’ advancement towards the capital Sanaa, the marginalization of Islah and finally the overthrow of the transitional government in January 2015.

The earlier rise in strength of the Islah party in state institutions pushed many of its opponents towards the Houthis, which were not perceived as tainted by corruption. Islah was further weakened after the July 2013 overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt: Saudi Arabia, increasingly hostile towards the Brotherhood in the whole region, cut its long-standing support to its former ally, negatively effecting Islah’s capacities to confront the Houthis.

The transitional president’s standing also suffered further. Despite international backing and sanctions imposed on Houthi and Saleh loyalists, Hadi was too weak to keep the Houthis –now increasingly backed by Saleh supporters – in check as he could only count on small parts of the armed forces. In addition, pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund forced Sanaa to lift subsidies on fuel, causing a new wave of countrywide protests and strikes against the government that played into his adversaries’ hands. Both the Houthis and Saleh exploited this situation to undermine the president. With their interests converging they started to cooperate to re-gain control over the fragmented state institutions and Yemen’s territory.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a number of allies militarily intervened to protect the “legitimate” government and reverse the takeover by the Houthis. However, with few military successes mainly in the South, the campaign has only worsened an already dramatic humanitarian situation and added to the everyday life grievances of 24 million Yemenis.

Extremist groups, such as the so-called Islamic State in Aden and Abyan, as well as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have been the main profiteers of the power vacuum and violent conflict, and have become prominent in territories “liberated” by the Saudi-led coalition. At the same time, by calling for Saudi intervention, Hadi lost what he still had in terms of legitimacy and trust throughout the country.

While in the mid-term the intervention is bound to weaken the Houthi-Saleh alliance, it is highly unlikely that the transitional government could be re-installed in Sanaa and go back to the implementation of the GCC Initiative. At present, no political leader exists that would have enough backing in the Yemeni population to be able to form a national government.

It is necessary to continue diplomatic efforts with conflict parties and regional powers in order to stop the bloodshed in Yemen. However, any meaningful efforts at stabilization should follow local approaches and incorporate non-state actors, which enjoy legitimacy and trust among the people.

Mareike Transfeld is a doctoral fellow at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies at the Freie Universität Berlin. She was previously a research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin and the head of research at the Yemen Polling Center (YPC) in Sanaa. She graduated in political science at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. She is the author of “Political Bargaining and Violent Conflict: Shifting Elite Alliances as the Decisive Factor in Yemen’s Transformation,” which was published online in October 2015 in the framework of SWP’s project “Elite Change and New Social Mobilization in the Arab World in Mediterranean Politics.”