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Stability remains elusive for Yemen

By James Fallon

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh last week signed a deal crafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to exit from power. While a marginally positive development, the pact is not sufficient to restore political stability in the near future. There are serious challenges to implementation and the ten-month political crisis has made ink on paper less relevant than the competing interests of Yemen's political players. Military and political power has fragmented to such a degree over the past ten months that repairing the state will be a difficult and protracted process. Furthermore, the deal does not satisfy the demands of protestors who have emerged as influential political stakeholders over the course of the crisis. And while most establishment players will likely work with the deal, they are not likely to quickly abandon any territorial, political, or military advantage gained over the past ten months.

Under the agreement, Saleh is to transfer his presidential powers to Vice President Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi while remaining honorary president for 90 days. Within this time, the vice president is expected to steward the formation of a national unity government chaired by an opposition figure (Hadi has tapped opposition leader and long-time Yemeni politician Mohammed Basindwa for the task) and preside over a presidential election, currently slated for February 2012. Hadi will also lead efforts to restructure the military. In return, Saleh is to receive immunity from prosecution.

But the deal is unlikely to usher in the return of a normal political process in such a neat timeframe. The most immediate challenge will be demilitarizing major cities such as Sana'a and Taiz and restructuring the military. Certain units remain under the control of Saleh's family members and allies, and others are controlled by their political rivals -- the GCC deal does not change this reality. Tribal forces have also proven formidable and have gained military control of some parts of the country; on-again off-again clashes between tribesmen and pro-Saleh units continue north of the capital. Should Saleh leave the country during the transition period, as has been rumored, it could reinforce the transition process's credibility. But he would still exercise influence. On Nov. 26, he issued a general amnesty, highlighting the ambiguity of his current position; a tactic that he has employed consistently to maintain his power. Protesters will continue to fill the streets in order to draw concessions from the political establishment; they reject the immunity clause in the GCC deal and remain suspicious of establishment opposition figures. Street protests alone are unlikely to derail the political process, but will influence its credibility and ultimate success or failure.

Apart from political wrangling, Yemen will also continue to face serious territorial challenges. The issue of southern independence, which has been largely eclipsed by the political standoff, will likely resurface as the country grapples with building a new governing structure. Further, the situation in Sa'ada province has deteriorated significantly, with increasing clashes between Salafist and Houthi militias. Clandestine financial or military assistance for these groups from the Gulf countries and Iran is difficult to gauge, but the perception alone heightens tensions. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has also gained room to operate as a result of the crisis and the state will remain constrained in its ability to confront the group. AQAP, however, will be hard pressed to cause any sustained disruptions to Saudi oil output or sea transport through the Gulf of Aden, and is highly unlikely to exercise any direct influence in the political process. The United States and Saudi Arabia will continue to use their military and intelligence capabilities to confront the group -- but neither of these countries has the capacity to effect a sustainable military solution to Yemen's problems.

James Fallon is an associate with Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.

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