Let’s face it, Yemen is a mess. Civil war has begun in Sanaa, and violence and unrest are ongoing outside the capital. It needs elections sooner rather than later. The United States and the international community should monitor the process for fairness but must not lead it. After 10 months of back-and-forth negotiations, it is clear that Yemen can only ever be really fixed by the hardy Yemeni people. Once they begin that vital process, starting with elections, they will need substantial outside assistance and investment. Following elections, we must all step up our efforts and help Yemen address seriously destabilizing factors, including, but not limited to, lack of national reconciliation, corruption, poverty, underdevelopment and water scarcity.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh has a unique opportunity in the latest deal on the table. He can help transition Yemen onto a stable path, unlike some other Arab leaders over the past year, thus establishing his legacy and leaving with a degree of grace and dignity. Winston Churchill once said history would be kind to him because he intended to write it. Mr. Saleh has this same opportunity right now. Once a political solution is achieved, the real work can begin to fix Yemen and its vast socioeconomic problems. Fail to help Yemen solve these burning issues, and it will fall into the abyss.
The military is not an option. Yemen needs peace before progress. It needs all troops back in their barracks, including Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and his loyalists, and all tribes back to their areas. All must accept that the violence must stop before the political process can begin. Recent lapses in the Oct. 25 cease-fire have not helped matters. As for the United States, we must under no circumstances contemplate boots on the ground; the Yemenis are worried enough about drone attacks and collateral damage. Our precision strikes are necessary. However, they should be clinical and must be canceled if innocents are in danger.
The Yemenis need change. The youth message may have been hijacked by other actors, including the Houthis and the Muslim Brotherhood, but the recurring theme is change. We should all bear in mind that the Yemenis have endured many hardships throughout their modern history that make the problems of today look less severe. The drought of the 1930s, the Radfan Rebellion from 1964 to 1969, and the 1994 civil war were all relatively worse. Thus, the United States and the international community should not rush Yemen into myopic solutions. The Yemeni people are resilient. They can make it through the current chaos through to elections. Yemen’s long-term problems must be our real shared focus. Developing the people’s full economic potential, and particularly the Port of Aden, is the key to a self-sustaining economy, as stated by former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara K. Bodine.
Mr. Saleh has ruled for 33 years; there are many Yemenis who love him, many who do not. He knows transition of power is complex. He should look to American history to find the most helpful example for the exercise of power. He would find that George Washington exercised power by refraining from its use on two occasions; first, when he relinquished the power of the army to Congress after the Revolution, and second, when he declined to stand for a third term of office as president. Mr. Saleh knows the manner in which George Washington is revered in America and also likely saw the footage of the demise of Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Yemen is on the brink of breakthrough, and Mr. Saleh holds the key.
Sure, the transition will be messy, but if he stays in power long term, the country will degenerate into complete chaos. The best solution appears to be the current deal on the table, which will allow the president time to exit with the future of his country in his mind and not all its revenue in his pocket. Any final solution must evenly press all parties from a path of violence to a brighter future through electoral politics. Most opposition parties are using the current impasse as an opportunity to achieve failure. This, in turn, provides them the most leverage. They thrive on the chaos and - unlike the government - accept no accountability for it.
Development-oriented solutions are needed now. It is critical that everyone focus on the wider solutions needed to tackle Yemen’s long-term problems. This will require special measures to generate the injection of funds and interest from the international community needed for this monumental task. Failure to do so will turn Yemen into Somalia; then we really will have a problem.
Robert Sharp is an associate professor and Fahad Malaikah is a research associate at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.