Yemen after the political earthquake

24 Nov

I am reproducing a piece from CBS that my colleague Manal Omar and I wrote yesterday following the signing of the GCC Initiative, the first step that so many hope will lead to a peaceful and just Yemen for all Yemenis.

Here is the original link: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-215_162-57330794/yemen-after-the-political-earthquake/

Yemen after the political earthquake

By  Manal Omar and Colette Rausch
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to the press at the Chancellery Feb. 27, 2008, in Berlin. (Getty Images)
(CBS News)The consistent advice we received from a wide range of Yemeni stakeholders during our visit to Sanaa was to be aware of the unpredictability of events. Wednesday morning’s news of President Saleh’s flight to Riyadh to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement proved the wisdom of the advice.Despite spending most of the day in meetings in Change Square, the central hub of the voices of the opposition, and several pro-government meetings, we could not have predicted such a quick turnaround in events. In fact, by the end of the day on Tuesday, as we passed through countless checkpoints throughout the city, we could not help but wonder if the stalemate between pro-government and pro-opposition forces that had divided Sana into two cities could be broken.The reality is that the news was unexpected to many Yemenis, and was greeted by a mixed response from people on the street. On the one hand, all sides welcomed the end to the nine-month stand off. Basic services such as electricity and water were at an all time low, food prices had skyrocketed, and people have been eager to move to the next phase. But on the other hand, a sense of caution was palpable.

One of the first challenges will be to ensure popular buy-in and cohesion amongst all Yeminis. The country has been divided, and the signing of the GCC initiative may not translate into automatic local buy-in. In the last 48 hours, many Yemenis have expressed support for the president. There is acknowledgement of the political failure of President Saleh, but also a recognition that he was in the best position to keep stability.

A combination of the fear of the unknown combined with a fear of civil war and distrust of the opposition led to support for Saleh. There were some pro-Saleh people who agreed it was perhaps time for a transition but that there should have been greater effort from within the system to pressure the president to fulfill his promises of reform. As reforms were implemented, Saleh could have departed with some of his dignity intact -rather than being forced out. At the same time, we heard that there was a smaller pro-Saleh group closer to the regime that would have the most to lose, and were eager to keep political power. This concern was exacerbated by the fact that immunity is not provided to his inner circle, and many referred to Egypt and Libya as a cautionary tale and as an incentive not to relinquish power.

From the opposition side, many expressed their view that it was not possible for Saleh to remain as president because he had not governed democratically and would not leave on his own volition. The concerns about challenges were also shared from within the opposition. One of the main questions they raised is whether Salah will truly leave the political scene,scene or whether he will continue to be active — or even support efforts to impedeto impede progress.

At the same time, while some are confident in their ability to maintain unity and govern democratically, there is a strong concern from within the opposition about whether they will be able to maintain unity and move forward with the implementation of the process outlined in the agreement. We heard concerns that creating a coalition government will lead to political infighting and stalemate, with various parties fighting over key ministries. Despite the concerns expressed, one sentiment shared by all groups is the hope in moving forward. All agree that this will be be challenging, but this is just the beginning.

As with many transitions the real hard work begins after the agreement is signed. Yemenis will need to have patience and manage expectations, but at the same time, tangible change will need to be seen.

We heard from many that the opposition parties, who will lead the national unity government, need to demonstrate in concrete ways that they will not engage in politics as usual, and to demonstrate transparency, openness, and an inclusive process. They will also need to tackle a host of challenges. These include not only providing basic services and addressing the poor economic picture but also dealing with a the North-South divide, preventing further fragmentation, ensuring that the police and security forces are accountable to the people, and establishing a system of fair and equitable governance over all of Yemen.

Although events may be unpredictable, the main lesson learned is not to underestimate the Yemenis. Many Yemenis we spoke with believe that the potential for Yemen to provide a new constructive model for transition is high, benefiting from lessons learned from previous Arab spring transitions.

They emphasize that despite the number of military defections, the movement remained peaceful with no civilians taking arms. There also is a pride that political negotiations coupled with popular uprisings in the streets were able to take place that led to a solution. On issues of transitional justice and accountability, several Yemini activists indicated that they aspire to provide a model for the region.

Unlike other experiences, a political party representative pointed out that the opposition is committed to eliminating a decision making-process that is held closely in the hands of one person. The general theme that we heard is that the principles of justice and accountability should not be lost. There is a need for a process for achieving justice and accountability as well as the mechanisms for building rule of law, but in a Yemeni context determined by Yemenis, through a national dialogue devised and implemented by them. Youth are demanding to be at the center of this dialogue and have more than just a voice. They expect an active decision-making role.

There is a strong determination across the different factions within Yemen to seize the opportunity to change the global image of Yemen. More and more, people are talking about moving away from the image of drug abusers and terrorists to a country that establishes democracy and rule of law through a peaceful transition. In fact, during interviews the level of sophistication of the youth movement, civil society, the political debates, and the commitment to a new future taken place is a positive indicator of the potential for a positive outcome. Yemenis have expressed a commitment and an ability for putting the interests of the nation above any individual interests.

This in itself provides a strong sense of hope for what lies ahead.

Bio: Manal Omar is the author of Barefoot in Baghdad and the Director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace. Colette Rausch is the Director of Rule of Law Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

© 2011 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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