Is Yemen Ready for Democracy?

Following the ouster of strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, Washington must keep Yemen on track toward representative government.

By Jessica Schulberg
February 28, 2012

On November 23rd, after 33 years as President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquished power to Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. The move followed one year of civilian uprisings that claimed the lives of thousands of protesters. Saleh’s efforts to hold on to power not only plunged the country into a state of turmoil and economic malaise but also exposed public frustration with U.S. sponsorship of dictators. The transition from Saleh to Hadi offers the United States a much-needed opportunity to rectify its blemished policy towards Yemen to one more receptive to the needs of the Yemeni people.

In an agreement mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Hadi assumed the presidency through an “election” on February 21st, in which he ran unopposed. Following his anticlimactic win, Hadi will serve as a transitional president for two years with a national government comprised of at least 40 percent representation from the opposition. Conveniently enough, the GCC agreement grants Saleh and his cronies immunity from prosecution, adding salt to the wound of more than thirty years of impunity.

As the latest al Qaeda hotspot, Yemen is a necessary partner in America’s Global War on Terror. Immediately following 9/11, Saleh pledged his unflinching support to fighting al Qaeda in Yemen. However, in the past decade, a covert war fought by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and an American-trained Yemeni military has only augmented al Qaeda’s presence and swelled anti-American sentiment in the country. Indeed, Saleh strategically manipulated America’s fear of terrorism to flood his coffers with foreign aid. Similarly, al Qaeda exploited the resented U.S. intervention to gain popular support and legitimize the need for sharia law. It is time for America to recognize that a secular strongman does not guarantee regional stability and that an authoritarian regime is not conducive to stopping terrorism.

The same dynamic is likely to occur under Hadi, who was handpicked by Saleh himself. Despite a surprisingly high voter turnout—figures range from 60 to 80 percent—Hadi does not enjoy widespread support, nor will his appointment put a lid on anti-government protests. While some voters proudly displayed their ink-marked fingers and celebrated the end of Saleh, others expressed disenchantment that one year of protesting culminated in a regime change orchestrated by foreign powers. Furthermore, Hadi faces opposition from a secessionist movement in the south, a tribal Houthi rebellion in the north, and pockets of land completely controlled by al Qaeda.

In a departure from the toxic Washington-Saleh relationship, U.S. officials must acknowledge that a government which serves the needs of the Yemeni people will be the most capable of limiting the growth of al Qaeda in the region. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland congratulated Yemen, but rightly stated the need for “full, free, fair, multi-party, multi-candidate elections” in the future. In order for this to occur, the Obama Administration must inform Hadi that continued financial aid is conditional on his fulfillment of democratic reform. For instance, Yemen’s military, responsible for the bulk of violence against civilians, remains largely untouched by the GCC agreement. Saleh’s son remains the Commander of the Republican Guard, a serious impediment to a peaceful transition forward for Yemen.

Historically, the bulk of U.S. aid money has been allocated towards accelerating Yemen’s military capability. Redistributing aid money in favor of infrastructure and education is necessary in any developing country, and would certainly benefit Yemen. Al Qaeda has used the rampant poverty and general incompetence of the central government to gain popular support by offering public schooling and access to resources. Less drone strikes and more humanitarian aid from Washington will go a long way in diminishing al Qaeda’s influence in Yemen.

The most important and perhaps most difficult policy change Washington must make is accepting al-Islah, the Muslim opposition party, as a legitimate player in Yemen’s new government. The fact that the GCC agreement provides for 40 percent representation of the opposition is one of a few redeeming factors in this pseudo-democratic agreement. For Washington to fall back on old habits and categorically refuse the presence of Islam in Yemen’s Government would only further alienate the United States from a population that is already highly suspicious of Western influence.

Hadi has yet to prove whether he is an extension of the Saleh regime or a progressive leader, capable of democratizing Yemen. It is up to Washington to pressure him to fulfill the latter role and support the Yemeni people in holding him accountable if he fails to do so. Ultimately, Washington’s goal of eradicating al Qaeda’s presence and Yemen’s goal of creating a peaceful, democratic political structure are mutually compatible. Three decades of U.S. support for a secular but autocratic leader obviously did not serve American or Yemeni interests.

The regrettable U.S. friendship with Saleh mirrors past policy mistakes. Hosni Mubarak, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Augusto Pinochet, and Mobutu Sese Seko all enjoyed tacit U.S. approval, while leading regimes riddled with human rights abuses, corruption, and ill-advised economic policies that left their countries in financial ruin. As the actions of these controversial figures became too egregious to maintain regional stability, American officials no longer found it beneficial to lend their support. Thus, with a bowed head, the United States quietly tore up partnerships with each strongman, leaving another blemish on an already marred foreign policy record. As the people of Yemen revamp their political structure, Washington must do the same to its foreign policy agenda, and international security will follow.

Photo courtesy of Osama Al-Eryani via Fickr.

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