10 June 2011
Ginny Hill
(Former Chatham House Expert)


Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh is recuperating in hospital in Saudi Arabia after reportedly suffering serious burns and shrapnel wounds during an explosion at his palace last week. Although his fragile medical condition rules out the prospect of a swift return home, his departure from Yemen by no means signifies the end to the country's troubles.

Saleh has temporarily transferred power to his vice-president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, but al-Hadi's emergency appointment functions as a stalling mechanism. The country's next steps are likely to be determined by a factionalised network of power brokers who cluster around the security services and the business community.

Independent youth activists - inspired by the recent wave of popular uprisings across the region - have spent the last four months calling for Yemen's corrupt, elitist system to be replaced by the effective institutions of a modern, civil state. Their demands for change contributed to existing tensions within the power elite. The first sign of an open split came in March, when senior army commander General Ali Mohsin made a tactical decision to break publicly with Saleh after a fatal sniper attack on the protest camp in the capital, Sana'a.

Elite tensions continued to build during April, as Saleh continually evaded international pressure to sign a transition plan backed by the neighbouring Gulf states. In May, violence between two rival factions broke out in the streets of Sana'a, when Saleh once again refused to sign the transition plan. Military units under the control of Saleh's son and nephews battled against the rival al-Ahmar family and their tribal supporters.

A week after the palace attack, there is still no clarity on who was responsible and, in the aftermath, there is dangerous uncertainty about the new balance within the power elite. Saleh's son and nephews remain in Sana'a, raising the prospect of further clashes.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the flight of the two disgraced presidents was enough to create an immediate new political reality on the ground. But one of the unintended consequences of the Gulf-backed transition deal has been to create a narrative around the transition that hinges on Saleh's consent to sign away his constitutional authority. The Gulf plan is now backed by only five of the six GCC member states, as Qatar has withdrawn its support. The prospect of holding elections within 60 days, as the plan stipulates, seems unrealistic.

A new framework for regional and international engagement is urgently required that addresses the likelihood of renewed violence as elite factions re-position. Beyond that, the international community would be wise to prepare for several cycles of transition over the coming years. Moving towards a stable new political settlement is going to be a long-term process that involves the southerners and the northern rebel movement, and assumes considerable restructuring within the established political parties.

For now, independent youth activists continue to call for an interim transitional council, a stronger parliamentary system and time to negotiate a new constitution. In fragile and conflict-affected countries, progressive change is often incremental and the goals of the youth revolution lie a long way ahead. Yet, amid the fear of continuing conflict, Yemen's youth movement provides a valuable glimmer of hope.