News has emerged in the past several days that Yemen’s longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh is to resign within 30 days, receive immunity for his crimes, and hand over power to a caretaker government pending elections within 60 days. Protesters are on the streets throughout Yemen today in condemnation of the deal, which has not met the wishes of many that he be tried for the many excesses of his regime, including the killings of many opponents since the uprising began. It is indeed true that the Yemeni people are denied some justice by this plan, but politics is, as they say, the art of the possible, and it should have been clear to all that Saleh would not leave willingly without immunity.
This is another development in a kind of crisis-behind-the-crisis: if leaders are subject to ill-treatment on their downfall, will their neighbors take notice and hold on to power with all their might? Saleh has seen Hosni Mubarak thrown in jail (again, justly) in recent days, and surely wishes to avoid a similar fate. The bloody crackdowns in Syria are the efforts of another tyrant to keep himself in power and out of the slammer. The Saleh deal is thus a positive step, in that it shows other troubled rulers that golden parachutes are available. However, it has a downside–the masses are still energized against the regime, because their demands have not been met. Will the elections sate them if they end up empowering a Saleh ally? Will the opposition parties be able to outmaneuver their uncompromising bases and enter the legal political game? If both of these questions are answered with a “no,” then Yemen runs a serious risk of civil war.
The deal contains an inherent risk–it does not take effect immediately. Saleh has a month to step down, and the interregnum the month after that will be led by a 50% pro-Saleh, 40% opposition government. There is a distinct possibility that backsliding will occur–and if the protesters begin to leave the streets, it only becomes more likely. Saleh could renege on some elements of the deal–say, making himself one of the candidates in the next election, or altering the caretaker regime to be even more favorable to him. He could also be forced to renege–if the immunity deal is not broad enough, those facing prosecution could launch a coup, either forcing him to remain in power or openly installing one of their own. Given the current fragmentation of the military, this would be difficult, and the inclusion of his personal guardian army in the immunity deal likely means that a coup is not in the offing. However, Saleh has not remained at the top of a deeply divided polity for three decades by playing fairly and openly, so it would not be surprising to find he has one last trick up his sleeve.
A very interesting element of the deal is its brokers, the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council (“so-called” because that is not its actual name). The GCC was formed with American backing as a kind of neo-Baghdad Pact intended to balance Iraq and Iran, yet it has, like the Arab League, typically been viewed as a weak institution. However, in the past few months the GCC has been in ascendancy, deploying a multinational force to shore up the tottering al Khalifa family in Bahrain and now brokering a major political deal. Brussels and Turtle Bay are surely intrigued by the emergence of a new multinational player–and they are likely not very pleased, for the GCC has merely been a tool for providing international consensus for the crackdown in Bahrain, and that cheapens the value of consensus as a tool for legitimating unpleasant actions.
Upshot: Saleh’s planned exit has not quieted the Yemeni opposition; if things do not go as planned, the cleavages in Yemeni society could come into the open in the form of violence.
Prediction: Yemen’s uprising has not seen its last bloodshed.