Reforms come slowly in post-Saleh Yemen

McClatchy NewspapersApril 15, 2012 

SANAA, Yemen — At first glance, Sheik Najib al-Aji's home seems an unlikely venue for revolutionary discourse.

The bulk of the crowd in the businessman's luxurious villa in the Yemeni capital is made up of friends, relatives and business partners, just as it has always been. But at a recent gathering it was a group of youth activists who were the center of attention, sharing their hopes and fears about their country's future as the more familiar faces sat enraptured.

The sumptuously decorated sitting room couldn't be more distant than the tents of Change Square, the sprawling anti-government sit-in where the sheik's youthful guests have spent much of the past year. But still the same question is on everyone's mind: Seven weeks after the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule, what is the fate of the movement that spurred the end to his three decades in power?

On the surface, the inauguration in February of Yemen's new president, longtime vice president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, marked a momentous occasion in Yemen's modern history. But while international diplomats have hailed the Western-backed deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council that paved the way for Saleh's exit and Hadi's accession to power following a one-man, referendum-like election, many here remain ambivalent about Yemen's political future.

Demonstrations continue throughout the country while activists continue their sit-ins, vehemently declaring that — despite Saleh's exit from power — the revolution continues.

Chief among their concerns is the fate of the powerful remnants of Saleh's regime. Fearful of threats to his rule, the former president stacked key military and intelligence positions with his family members and tribal kinsmen.

Over the past year, tensions within the inner circle have come to the fore as a number of longtime Saleh allies, most notably General Ali Mohsen, opted to drop support for the former president. But the deal that secured Saleh's exit from power left the leadership of Yemen's divided military intact, postponing the process of military reform until after Hadi took office.

By reassigning several powerful leaders, Hadi exceeded the most pessimistic predictions that he would be unable to confront these powerful military figures. But underscoring the challenges of military reform, Sanaa's international airport last week was shuttered for more than 24 hours after Hadi replaced Air Force head Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, the ex-president's half-brother, because of fears that forces loyal to him would attack civilian planes in retaliation.

Despite speculation that he would seek exile outside of Yemen, Saleh remains in the country and his son and nephew retain control of key military posts, as do powerful defectors like Mohsen.

With so many holdovers still in control of swaths of the country's troops, many fear that further efforts towards restructuring Yemen's armed forces could spark a return to the factional violence that rocked Sanaa last fall.

Military reform is widely seen as a precursor to an inclusive national dialogue, which is supposed to pave the way for constitutional reforms according to the Gulf council deal. Yet while politicians have begun laying the groundwork for national dialogue, many demonstrators remain skeptical that a transitional process that they view as dominated by political elites will address their hopes for a major break from the past.

Government officials have tried to assure disaffected youth that their voices will be heard. Yemen's unity government recently formed a committee headed by the human rights minister, Hooria Mashhour, that's tasked with heading outreach efforts.

"No one will be ignored," said Mashhour, who is one of the few government ministers with widespread credibility among youth demonstrators. "All youth from different political and social backgrounds will be represented and their voices will be heard with full respect and concern."

The reforms are just one of many tasks facing the post-Saleh government. Still reeling from a year of unrest and political uncertainty, Yemen's historically weak economy remains on the brink of collapse.

Unemployment is estimated to top 50 percent. Major cities continue to suffer from utility outages while government troops remain locked in fierce battles against Islamist militants who have seized swaths of territory in the country's southern Abyan province.

Analysts say hopes for rapid change are likely to be dashed. Barely six weeks into the post-Saleh era, Yemen has just embarked on what even the most optimistic observers expect to be a protracted period of gradual reform.

"We're just beginning a long process," said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Sanaa-based political analyst. "Hadi has taken a bite. He'll need some time to digest before taking the next step."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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For more coverage visit McClatchy's Middle East page.

McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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