Yemen at crossroads

Yemen at crossroads

During a recent visit to Yemen, I was sitting in a cafe in Sana when we suddenly experienced a power outage.

I asked the waiter what happened, and he replied: “Saleh’s men keep attacking the main power plant in Mareb to disrupt life in Sana. Saleh is still working against the revolution. He won’t give up.” Regardless of the real causes of the outage, the waiter’s explanation reflected a general sense that the uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his aides is far from over.

Officially, the uprising, which was inspired by the Arab Spring and led to hundreds of deaths, ended last February when the former vice president, Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was installed as president. But many Yemenis do not believe that Saleh has entirely exited the political scene after 33 years of authoritarian rule over the poor, deeply divided country.

By and large, change and uprising in Yemen are proceeding on parallel tracks, and unless the international community provides Yemen with serious support these tracks may collide — with dire domestic and regional consequences.

Some Yemenis have blamed the opposition for signing the power transfer deal that removed Saleh from power without insisting on making his immunity conditional on his retirement from political activity. The terms of immunity allow Saleh to exercise politics in any capacity he wishes other than the presidency, while also completely shielding him from prosecution. Saleh still serves as president of his General People’s Congress party, which makes many Yemenis nervous about his plans. Young revolutionaries fear their uprising has not yet achieved its goals.

Yemen’s transition, unlike others in the region, was met with unanimous support from the international community, which has positioned Hadi strongly to deal with the multiple challenges he faces. Indeed, President Barack Obama’s recent threat to freeze the assets of “those trying to disrupt the political transition” sent a clear message to Hadi’s rivals about the strong American stance on Yemen.

Hadi has used this robust international support to change the balance of power in his country. He succeeded in sidelining General Mohammed Saleh Al-Ahmar, the air force chief and Saleh’s half brother, as well as Tareq Saleh, a commander of a powerful brigade in Sana and Saleh’s nephew, significantly boosting the president’s power and popularity. The partnership between Hadi and the US undoubtedly extends to the fight against Al Qaeda. For Hadi, defeating the group is crucial for several reasons. He needs to distance himself from his predecessor by proving his sincerity about routing Al Qaeda. This will earn him the trust of the international community. Furthermore, winning the war against Al Qaeda will pave the way for restoring security and stability in Yemen.

Although these successes are important, they will not transform Yemen into a stable, functioning nation. It will take more than defeating Al Qaeda and sidelining Saleh’s allies for Hadi to win the hearts and minds of Yemenis.

Above all, Hadi must quickly deliver desperately needed services to the people. Yemen is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by recent clashes, and aid must be delivered before it is too late. In my discussions with tribal members, “looming starvation” was mentioned several times.

In addition, power outages happen many times a day, complicating attempts at economic recovery and stalling efforts to resume normal daily life. Frustrated by the frequency of power outages, it is no surprise that the waiter I spoke to believes that Saleh’s men are behind these disruptions. Yemen’s problems can be solved, but the international aid community must step in immediately if the country is to stave off a looming disaster.

Ibrahim Sharqieh is a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center. This abridged article originally appeared on Khaleej Times online.