He what?

We're honored once again to offer our readers a guest-post by University of Exeter PhD candidate and renowned Yemen-watcher Fernando Carvajal. I should probably stop calling them "guest-posts," though, since Fernando is responsible for more of our recent content than we are. This one offers some much-needed insight into the behind-the-scenes politics of the formation of the new unity government and the immediate future of Yemen after the signing of the infamous GCC agreement. Fernando prefaces his post with a phrase familiar to American readers: "Sic semper tyrannis"

So far this has been one of those intense weeks for Yemenis and our group of observers.  Events began to develop on Saturday November 19th with news that UN Special Envoy Jamal Ben Omar would cancel a planned trip to Riyadh with Opposition leaders and representatives from president Saleh’s government, and instead would remain in Sana’a until the final deal would lead to agreement on the GCC Initiative introduced in April.  Ben Omar pressed both sides for a final agreement as the 30 day deadline imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 2014 approached. This deadline would require Ben Omar to produce a report on the situation, which would not paint a favorable picture for President Saleh, who already began to feel the heat from calls to freeze his assets outside Yemen and impose sanctions on his relatives and government officials by activists like Tawakkol Karman and others online.  Such efforts against Saleh gained the ear of French officials who made their opinion public and threatened to act on sanctions if the stalemate and killings continued in Yemen.

As I left Yemen on Monday November 21st it looked like I would miss another historic event this year, even though my Yemeni friends remained pessimistic about the president’s intentions.  On Wednesday, as I waited for my flight from London to Los Angeles I began to read the news that President Saleh had signed the GCC initiative in Riyadh, which was then followed by a series of signatures elsewhere of the documents containing amendments and additions to the initiative as agreed by the Joint Meeting Parties and government officials like FM Abu Bakr al-Qirbi and Dr Abd al-Kareem al-Iryani.   As people in Sana’a informed me before my departure, two points were essential to ensuring signatures on both sides. First was the issue over immunity. Many people still think this only concerns President Saleh and his relatives, but indeed the deal includes immunity for about 16 major personalities directly involved in the conflict since February in areas like Aden, Arhab, Sana’a and Taiz.  All individuals involved in violent clashes with official posts are covered by the immunity deal, even so-called defectors who curiously enough have remained on official government payrolls since March 20th.

Second, the Southern question had been a vital issue to address before any deal could be agreed. This was Dr. Yasin Saeed No’man’s main agenda.  Dr. No’man, head of the Yemen Socialist Party, has remained the primary face of the Southern issue since the failed National Dialogue process. Al-Harak, or Southern Movement, has been unable to become a legitimate representative of the South within political negotiations as an ‘unconstitutional’ entity.  This leaves Dr. No’man with the burden to carry on under pressure from the population in the South and obstacles created by ‘leaders’ in exile.  Dr. No’man, and his junior political allies within the JMP, had to press for the issue to be included in the agreement in order for it to remain in the agenda for the Dialogue process leading to the interim government. The issue had to be recognized within the agreement in order to marginalize any communiqué produced during the two day meeting of southern leaders in Cairo between November 21 and 22.  Fortunately for Dr. No’man the meeting in Cairo was a fiasco. Only a few activists attended the meeting and the few opted to continue supporting secession, moving away from loud voices supporting negotiations on the establishment of a Federal Republic, whose political entities are still debated inside and outside Yemen.  The matter remains highly volatile but at least the Southern question has not been completely ignored as the Houthi issue, which remains completely outside the political process today.

Finally, today we began to hear news of Mr. Mohammed BaSundwa as the most probable candidate from the JMP for the post of interim Prime Minister for the 90 day period under the GCC Initiative.  The Twitter-sphere also began to transmit opinions of many at Change Square who claimed BaSundwa was not the ideal candidate but would be acceptable, we assume this is the case for JMP youth, not independents who continue rejecting the legitimacy of the GCC deal.  I was told last weekend that the other two candidates would be Dr. Yasin No’man and Abd al-Wahhab al-Anesi of al-Islah.  The former would be the ideal candidate but Dr. No’man failed to accept President Saleh’s offer after 22 May 2010 and he would lose further credibility in the South by merely participating in the interim government.  People have hopes for No’man as a Prime Minister after the elections, not merely within the 90 day transition period.  Mr. al-Anesi would be problematic as a candidate since he is the head of al-Islah party, blamed for hijacking the youth revolution, and representing the old guard within the party with a more conservative image.  His candidacy would also represent Islah’s hegemony over the JMP and would raise red flags for the US and UK governments at a time when Islamist parties begin their ascent through the Arab Spring in North Africa.

As for Mr. BaSundwa, a former UN Ambassador and Foreign Minister under president Saleh, his candidacy appears the most appropriate for the interim period.  I spent my Fridays during Ramadan this year with him and a group of opposition personalities in Sana’a, where I had the opportunity to gain further insight into the complexities faced by the National Transition Council.  It was also a great opportunity for me to understand some of the personalities involved.  My most memorable exchange with Mr. BaSundwa and company was when I complained to the group about the Council’s holiday announcement. I was a bit harsh, in a diplomatic way, when I expressed my disgust of the idea that politicians could go on Eid holiday in the middle of a ‘revolution’ while youth remained at Change Square and Freedom Square away from their own families. Many agreed with me but at the end they said ‘this is Yemen’.  Mr. BaSundwa impressed me with his understanding of the crisis and international actors, but I have to say that we must keep our expectations low during his brief term in office.  His role will be to maintain the parties engaged, as he did during the National Dialogue process.  We must also keep in mind that his presence will not be well received by President Saleh, who still holds BaSundwa responsible for the direct attacks on him produced by the final communiqué from the Central Committee of the National Dialogue.  Saleh also opposed BaSundwa’s presence during the signing of the GCC Initiative in May.  We must also keep in mind that the interim government, if it includes BaSundwa, will actually be an ‘all Southern government’. Both VP al-Hadi and BaSundwa are southerners, and if we look at the overwhelming majority of Deputy Ministers they too are Southerners. We need to see who will be the new Vice President and how many Deputy Ministers are changed after the 90 day transition period.  I guess Hamid al-Ahmar will get his wish.

Some analysts in Sana’a also point to BaSundwa’s relations with Hamid al-Ahmar as a major point of friction between him and President Saleh.  After all these negative points against BaSundwa one may wonder why him?   We must keep in mind the process engaged in ending the nearly ten month long stalemate merely included regime actors, not the youth or groups beyond existing political parties.  Choices are few from within the political elite.  Many of us will agree this has been a direct negative consequence of the many opportunities missed by the independent youth to organize themselves and become active participants rather than marginalized and co-opted numbers contained by Firqa and al-Islah.  The major theme over the past ten months in Yemen has been the absence of viable alternatives.  None have surfaced, even from among the defectors, like Muhammad Abu Lahum of the Justice & Building Bloc or from within the newly announced Democratic Awakening Movement.  No individual or group has been able to challenge the JMP leadership, yes, not even Tawakkol Karman.  The lack of viable alternatives leaves the elite to negotiate among themselves and to proceed along expected political lines without any plans to change the status quo.

We must keep in mind that no political actor, not Abu Lahum or the Democratic Awakening, have produced any vision for progress following the transition process.  It is a shame that after ten months neither the government nor groups of activists have a program for constitutional reform, economic recovery or national reconciliation.  We are now in the days after the signature and since March all I hear is ‘the plan will come out after the signature, it will be ready’.  Well, where is it? As a foreigner I understand that my role should be limited to that of an observer, but after spending so much time with activists and government officials I cannot avoid asking such questions. I truly hope that some vision is announced within hours, otherwise the youth will find themselves having thrown away ten months of their lives for nothing.  Occupation of streets in Sana’a or Ta‘iz will mean nothing without a vision of what the ‘post-Saleh period’ should look like.