With President Leaving, Yemen Steps Into A New Era

Feb 24, 2012
Originally published on February 24, 2012 10:25 pm

Yemen has become the latest Arab country to depose its dictator.

On Monday, the country's longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is set to hand power to his vice president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, as part of an agreement reached late last year. The agreement was backed by the U.S., Europe and Yemen's powerful Gulf Arab neighbors. It was ratified by more than 60 percent of Yemen's voters earlier this week.

Now, the real work begins.

In Yemen's capital, Sanaa, services are better than before to some degree. The electricity is on and water is better in some places. Yet, there's still a sense that Yemen's economy is in a very dire situation.

It's even worse outside the city. UNICEF says a half-million children are in danger of starving. That is probably the first challenge facing the new president as he takes office — that and security in a country that has seen so much unrest over the past year.

'Yemen Is Based On Compromise'

The fact that Yemen was able to rally behind a new president at all is a sign that the country is ready to reconcile. Still, the reconciliation comes as a surprise to many here.

How could a country that just months ago was on the verge of civil war manage a peaceful transition of power?

Mohammed Abu Lahoum used to be part of the old regime but now heads an independent political party. He says that while most people think Yemen's tribal system is based on violence and unrest, it actually is more sophisticated than that.

"The flavor of Yemen is based on compromise. If you look at Yemen over the last hundreds of years, we've always lived on compromise," he says. "We're never decisive or take an argument all the way to the end. You always take an argument and then you listen [to] what the compromise is."

It's this kind of compromise that will be needed if Yemen's new president is to deal with the problems left behind by the his predecessor. For one, he'll need to make peace with an insurgent group in the north and separatists in the south.

Justice Without Prosecutions

There's also the question of what to do about the hundreds of anti-government protesters who were killed and injured in the past year.

Those who have seen Yemen's new transitional justice law say it's likely to call for a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission, as well as compensation for victims' families. What's missing, says Letta Tayler, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, is prosecutions.

"It's not enough to just say, 'We're sorry, here's some redress, and let's talk it all out in a truth commission,' " Tayler says. "The survivors and the families of those killed are entitled to justice, and that means prosecution of those responsible up to the highest levels."

The trouble is Yemen's outgoing president was granted immunity from prosecution. Unlike Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Saleh won't stand trial. Neither will his relatives, who still command units in the armed forces — units that are known to have carried out some of the violence.

The BBC asked Saleh's calm but defiant nephew, military commander Yehya Saleh, if he, too, should leave his post.

"Why we should leave? What we did that we have to leave?" he responded.

New Yemen, New U.S. Approach?

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Yemen, especially for the U.S., is al-Qaida. The past year of unrest gave the group a stronger foothold. In the country's southwest, Islamist militants thought to have ties to al-Qaida have taken over entire towns and villages.

Nadia al-Saqqaf, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times, says the militants have been able to offer poor Yemenis what the state could not: "drilling wells and giving food to poor families and so on."

She says the new president and his U.S. allies should take a new approach. They should focus on developing poor, rural communities, she says, instead of continuing to militarize the fight against terrorism by allowing American drones to drop bombs on villages and funneling American money to counterterrorism units still loyal to the old regime.

"You need to do something called 'soft security.' It's engaging people, making them feel like they are part of this dream, this nation, this vision," Saqqaf says. "Unless they feel that these terrorists are a threat to them, they will allow jihadis to hide in their homes; they will not report any suspicious act."

The U.S. does have development programs here — some of the largest in the region. But the question remains, will the U.S. have a new approach to terrorism in the new Yemen?

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

The Arab Revolutions have demonstrated that the end of a leader's rule is not the end of the story. People face chaos and uncertainty, and also the release of social pressures that the past rulers kept out of sight. Yemen is no exception. On Monday, Yemen's longtime President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is set to hand power to his vice president. The agreement was backed by the United States, Europe, Yemen's neighbors and Yemeni voters. But it's only a start.

Listen to the scale of the problem that NPR's Kelly McEvers is about to describe and then that she calls it: The first problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Here we are in Bab al-Yemen. It's the entrance to the old city in Yemen's capital, Sana'a. To some degree, services are better than before, the electricity is on. In some places water is better. But still, there's still a sense that Yemen's economy is in very a dire situation. And it's even worse outside the city. UNICEF says, you know, a half a million children, at this point, are in danger of starving. So that is probably the first challenge facing the new president, as he takes office.

That and security in a country that has seen so much unrest over the past year. That Yemen was able to rally behind a new president at all is a sign that country is ready to reconcile. Still, the reconciliation comes as a surprise to many here in the region. How could a country that just months ago was on the verge of civil war manage a peaceful transition of power?

Mohammed Abu Lahoum, who used to be part of the old regime but now heads an independent political party, says while most people think that Yemen's tribal system is one based on violence and unrest, it actually is more complicated than that.

MOHAMMED ABU LAHOUM: The flavor of Yemen is based on compromise. If you look at Yemen over the last hundreds of years, we've always lived on compromise. We're never decisive or we take an argument all the way to the end. You always take an argument and then you listen what the compromise is.

MCEVERS: It's this kind of compromise that will be needed if Yemen's new president is to deal with the problems left behind by the old president. For one, he'll need to make peace with an insurgent group in the north and separatists in the south. What's more, there's the question about what to do about the hundreds of anti-government protesters who were killed and injured over the past year.

Those who have seen Yemen's new transitional justice law say it's likely to call for a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as compensation for victims' families. But what's missing, says Letta Tayler, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, is prosecutions.

LETTA TAYLER: It's not enough to just say, we're sorry, here's some redress and let's talk it all out in a truth commission. The survivors and the families of those killed are entitled to justice, and that means prosecution of those responsible, up to the highest levels.

MCEVERS: Trouble is, Yemen's outgoing president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was granted immunity from prosecution. Unlike Egypt's ex-dictator, Hosni Mubarak, Saleh won't stand trial. Neither will his relatives, who still command units in the armed forces - units that are known to have carried out some of the violence.

Here's Saleh's calm but defiant nephew, military commander Yehya Saleh, when asked by the BBC if he, too, should leave his post.

YEHYA SALEH: Why we should leave? What we did that we have to leave?

MCEVERS: And then there's perhaps the biggest challenge in Yemen, especially for the U.S., and that's al-Qaida. The past year of unrest only gave the group a stronger foothold. In the country's southwest, Islamist militants thought to have ties to al-Qaida have taken over entire towns and villages.

Nadia al-Saqqaf is the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times. She says the militants have been able to offer poor Yemenis what the state could not.

NADIA AL-SAQQAF: Drilling wells, giving food to poor families, and so on.

MCEVERS: She says instead of continuing to militarize the fight against terrorism - by allowing American drones to drop bombs on villages, and funding counter-terrorism units still loyal to the old regime - Yemen's new president and his U.S. allies should focus on developing poor rural communities.

AL-SAQQAF: You need to do something called soft security. It's engaging people, making them feel like they are part of this dream, this nation, this vision. Unless they feel that these terrorists are a threat to them, they will allow jihadis to hide in their homes. They will not report any suspicious act.

MCEVERS: The U.S. does have development programs here, some of the largest in the region. But the question remains, will the U.S. have a new approach to terrorism in the new Yemen.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Sana'a. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.