Yemen has always been a country of halves, and 2012 was no different. Half dictatorship, half elections, half reform and some even claim merely a half a revolution, given that past injustices have yet to be righted.
For starters, after more than three decades of dictatorship under Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemenis held their first free and fair election for a president in February, though it was more of a referendum really, given that there was only one name on the ballot. Needless to say, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi won handily.
Hadi’s rise — or rather, Saleh’s undoing — had began a year earlier, when angry, frustrated youth began protesting. Saleh’s bloody attempts at repression only galvanized wider public support against him, spurring a general uprising. Life-long Saleh allies switched sides, skewing the character of the protest movement but also opening the door to foreign political intervention when Yemen appeared on the brink of civil war. The international community and Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, known simply as ‘the GCC deal’, led to Saleh being granted immunity for stepping down and a managed transition away from his rule.
The implementation of that deal, with all its complex details, has dominated Yemen’s political headlines for the last year.
The youth who began the protests in 2011 had six main demands for the revolution: overthrowing the regime, building a civic state with a separation of powers, the creation of a free education system, building a strong national economy, assuring an independent judiciary and the reconstruction of the military.
Looking at those demands provides an opportunity to assess how far the country has come and how far it still has to travel.
Saleh is — at least technically — out of power, and while many of his strongest allies and relatives have also been pushed out of military and civic agencies, some have managed to retain powerful positions in the armed forces. The process of reconstructing the military has begun, but too slowly for many. Further concerns remain over segments of the military that joined the revolution, as they are now actually impeding the reconstruction.
The economy, meanwhile, remains devastated. It is not just that millions of Yemenis face an ongoing hunger crisis, but that the traditional elite who maintain a stranglehold on the economy have not had their interests challenged. The National Dialogue Conference — once slated for the end of 2012 but now postponed — is meant to bring together all the country’s stakeholder groups and is the optimists’ strategy for solving Yemen’s woes. However, it faces many obstacles, the most pressing of which is southern separatists threatening a boycott. Thus, the dialogue’s legitimacy is already under scrutiny.
It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the only two parts of the GCC deal that have been fully achieved are granting Saleh immunity and Hadi assuming his place, though with limited authority. Everything else is either in transition, or waiting for the national dialogue. Solutions for dealing with political problems — such as southern secessionists, the rebellious northern Saada region and the continued lack of youth inclusion in the process — remain vague. Despite attempts by the United Nations to reach a national consensus, such an agreement is difficult to foresee.
Political issues are further complicated by the fact that they are interrelated to economic problems, so unless economic fundamentals are dealt with, little political progress can be achieved. Sadly there is currently not much Yemen can do by itself economically. Until it rediscovers its economic capacity — replaced during 33 years of corrupt dictatorship with a semi-feudal system — international help is needed. The world has started to realize this and the recent international ‘Friends of Yemen’ conference led to pledges totaling $8 billion in aid and loans. How and when these funds will be spent, or even if they will materialize at all, is unclear.
Despite the dramatic events of the last two years, Yemen remains unable to end its cycle of tragedies alone. The first few months of 2013 are crucial. If the National Dialogue Conference fails, the country will go from being a weak state to a failing one. This could exacerbate emerging sectarian and tribal tensions, while the youth contingent who saw their protests fail may not be so peaceful next time. The nightmare scenario is a civil war. Now, as never before, Yemen is at the crossroads between becoming the new Egypt, where a fledgling democracy is gradually taking hold, or a collapsed state like Somalia. The outcome of the national dialogue and the international community’s actions will be crucial in deciding Yemen’s fate.