Political Transition in Yemen: a Step toward Peace

For Yemen, a fragile state facing an insurgency in its north, an independence movement in its south, deep poverty and an alarming expansion of Al-Qaeda within its borders, the Arab Spring, with its calls for sweeping political change, added a new layer of complexity to the country’s long-running troubles.

Youth-led street protests for democracy were met with repres­sion, and then military clashes erupted between supporters and opponents of the longstanding President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The fighting brought more blood­shed and destruction while dis­tracting from the other security challenges in the country.

UN-Mediated Political Agreement

Yet out of these newest difficulties there is a chance, under a UN-mediated political agreement, for Yemen’s lead­ers to turn the recent political turmoil into an opportunity to begin moving the country in the direction of greater stabil­ity and peace. UN envoy Jamal Benomar, who helped to broker the agreement in November at the request of Yemen’s government and political opposition, cautions that the two-year “roadmap” for transition is only one step in what would be a long and difficult road forward.

Challenging Negotiations

With support from the Department of Political Affairs, including its mediation and electoral divi­sions, Benomar traveled to Yemen repeatedly throughout 2011, engaging in dialogue with a broad cross-section of actors and develop­ing ideas on a possible transition.

An initial power transfer agree­ment had been struck under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in May 2011. However, that agreement was not being implemented and violence was spiraling along with humani­tarian suffering.

The first challenge for the UN mediation effort, Benomar recalled, was to get a direct dialogue going between Yemenis. “The politi­cal actors, the opposition and the ruling party, had gotten used for several months to the idea that they could just pass on messages through Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and foreign diplomats in Sana’a. We told them very clearly that this cannot continue. This delays the resolution of the conflict. We need to engage in face to face dialogue.”

Direct discussions under UN facilitation took place in July, lead­ing to informal agreements that shaped the eventual accord struck later. “These initial talks proved, in the first place, that face-to-face dia­logue was possible and, secondly, that when Yemenis meet, they are less maximalist in their demands and they are able to work through their differences,” said Benomar.

Situation Remains Fragile

Meanwhile, Benomar has also called on the international com­munity to “upscale” its level of support for Yemen’s political, eco­nomic, humanitarian and security needs and has indicated that the UN system — agencies, funds, programmes — would be retooling its assistance with an eye toward supporting implementation of the transition plans.

“The situation in Yemen remains highly fragile. Now is not the time for complacency,” the UN envoy said.

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