April 11, 2011

Yemen 2011: Estimates for Scenario 1

Scenario 1: Peaceful transition of power from Saleh to some successor(s).

Current Situation: Country-wide, peaceful, anti-government protests have been met with the repressive use of force by Yemeni security forces. This violence, especially an incident in Sana’a on March 18 when over fifty protestors were killed by snipers, resulted in mass defections from the regime, including leading tribal and military figures on March 21. President Ali Abdullah Saleh made pre-emptive political and economic concessions at the end of January and the beginning of February that met most of the protestors’ demands. Saleh’s promise to not run for re-election in 2013 was met by skepticism from the opposition because he has announced in previous election cycles that he would not run. Currently, negotiations over a potential transition have stalled, primarily over the timing and terms of Saleh’s resignation. Violent crackdowns have continued, especially in the cities of Taiz, Hudaydah, and Aden, and have sparked protests in solidarity with the cities that have experienced violence. More broadly, the unrest has further weakened the central government’s control over at least six governorates.

The estimate focuses on the following key questions:

  • Who are the most likely candidates to succeed Saleh either singly or jointly? Who will be involved in the transition negotiation?
  • Will the Yemeni government and armed forces remain intact, fragment, disintegrate, or fall into internal conflict?
  • Will Sana’a lose more control over parts of the country? If so, where?
  • How will the various major tribes and other formal/informal opposition elements react?
  • Is any such transition likely to remain stable or is it likely to degrade and/or collapse? If the latter, how rapidly?

The estimate also focuses on the following questions:

  • How will neighbors react?
  • How will al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) react?
  • How will other al Qaeda franchises and al Qaeda central react?
  • What events are likely to trigger mobilization of the population for significant communal conflict? Along tribal, sectarian, ideological, geographical, or other lines?
  • What are the humanitarian risks involved?

The estimate holds the following base assumptions:

  • The peaceful transition occurs under the current conditions – levels of violence remain steady and security conditions do not deteriorate.
  • No unknown actor seizes power.
  • The scenario is the immediate consequence of the initial transition of power. 
Formation of new government

It is almost certain that the negotiated transition will form an interim civilian government tasked with political reform in Yemen. Key players for the opposition at the negotiating table will likely include General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar (Hashid tribe), Sheikh Mohammed Abu Lahoum (former GPC party and Bakil tribe), Hamid al Ahmar (al Islah party, Hashid tribe), Yasin Said Numan (Yemeni Socialist Party, Joint Meeting Parties), Mohammed Qahtan (al Islah party, Joint Meeting Parties), and Hassan Zaid (al Haq party). It is less likely that representatives from the youth movement will be involved in the formal political negotiations; however, there are indications that the opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), has adopted many of the youths’ demands for transition. Interested international actors will also likely be involved in the transition. U.S. and U.K. ambassadors have both been active in the early stages of negotiations. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, especially Saudi Arabia, will likely attempt to guide the negotiations toward a quick settlement that will stabilize the country.

There is a high likelihood that the current vice president, Abdul Rabu Mansour al Hadi, will head the interim government, along with an advisory council of key opposition figures. The Hashid and Bakil tribes will likely maintain strong influence over the government because of the power that they hold in northern Yemen. Defected GPC political leaders will likely remain involved in the new government. Political reforms will almost certainly remain within the bounds of the JMP’s demands and electoral reforms will not open up the system to new players. It is very likely that former regime members who defected after March 18 will position themselves within the new government and less likely that traditional opposition figures will gain actual power.

Relative strength of new government

The new government will likely maintain most of the current government’s traditional support base. The Hashid and the Bakil tribes, two of the most powerful tribes in north Yemen, form the tribal base for Saleh’s regime. The military has historically had a close relationship with the civilian government. It is unlikely that General Ahmar and Hashid and Bakil tribal leaders will accept terms that they find unacceptable.

The government will not be stronger than Saleh’s government and the country is unlikely to be more unified or centralized than before the unrest. There is a high likelihood that it will be faced with more immediate demands from its citizens. Provision of basic public goods and services will likely be among the new government’s priorities because this is one of the unifying demands from the Yemeni street opposition. Further, when the new government assumes control, Yemen will not be a stable country and will have lost significant administrative control over such governorates as Sa’ada, Ma’rib, al Jawf, Shabwah, Abyan, and Aden, among others. The need to re-consolidate control, potentially through the co-option of different factions, will challenge the new government. Months of protests will likely have had a significant impact on an already poor economy, for example.

Ensuing negotiations and power-mongering by leading political, military, and tribal figures will change power dynamics and will likely impact the shape of the final government. The reshuffling of government figures will likely take place in the short term with the long-term goal of shaping the final form of the government. Though remote, there would remain the possibility of state collapse should a leading figure withdraw support from the government. 

Reactions from internal interests

The possibility that internal interest groups will reject the negotiated settlement cannot be ruled out.

Al Houthi Movement

The al Houthis will likely accept the new government, provided that demands for political rights are met and that Yemeni troops deployed to enforce government order in al Houthi strongholds like Sa’ada governorate are removed. It is unlikely that the new central government would be able to regain control of areas under al Houthi influence in the short term and that military operations against the al Houthis would be conducted. Given these conditions, it is likely that the ceasefire will be upheld and the al Houthis will work with the new government. Tensions, however, may remain between the pro-government tribes and the al Houthis, who have clashed on several occasions. Another area of contention may be over the fate of General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar and those who served under him. General Ahmar’s division of the army was responsible for the brutal repression of the al Houthi movement.

Southern Movement

The resolution of negotiations and the resignation of Saleh will satisfy a unifying demand within the movement and will likely remove some of the cohesion seen within the Southern Movement. Different long-term objectives, including federalization, secession, or political reform, will likely form dividing lines between different factions in the Southern Movement. The south will generally continue to feel disenfranchised by the north, especially given that those negotiating the transition and running the new interim government will be the traditional political elite. Though it is unlikely that any factions will fully militarize in the south, certain ones will probably see the transition in the government as an opportunity to push for the south’s secession. Exiled Southern Movement leaders may also attempt to re-enter Yemeni politics, though it is unlikely that the current political elite – composed of northerners and southerners who did not support the 1994 civil war – will accept former leaders’ return.

Youth Movement

The negotiated terms have incorporated some of the youth movement’s demands. It is very likely, however, that the youth will not be represented in the new government and will not have key demands met to their satisfaction in the near term. A demand that has emerged following the violent repression of protestors has been for Saleh and regime members to face trial for their criminal acts, for example. It is also likely that certain segments of the movement will remain on the streets, rejecting the re-empowerment of any political figure from the previous regime. Other opposition groups are unlikely to support continued protests by the youth movement, having already achieved their primary objective in removing Saleh from power.


The northern-based Hashid and Bakil tribes, who will have played a role in negotiating the transition of power, will support the interim government and will likely constitute a strong support base for the government, as they did for Saleh’s regime. Tribes that took over territory from the central government, such as in Shabwah governorate, will not cede control easily to a new government and will expect to receive pay-offs from the government. Further, it is likely that the new government will not have sufficient sway to induce any transfer of territorial authority over to Sana’a. Tribes in governorates largely unaffected by the unrest, such as the remote eastern regions, will likely demand the continuation of the benefits granted to them by Saleh’s regime. 

Impact on security forces

State of security forces

The military will not be divided. It is unlikely that significant elements of the military will opt to stand alongside any remaining demonstrators after a negotiated transition takes place. Defected military officials cited the state’s crackdown on peaceful protestors as the reason for the shift in their loyalties. The end of widespread protests would be an indicator to the military that the situation has calmed. Security forces will likely stand by the new government and will attempt to shut down any residual protests.

There will likely be changes in command of the army’s divisions and in the internal security forces. General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar has indicated a desire to retire, though he may be seeking to increase his influence over the military. Saleh traditionally used military posts as a means of maintaining influence over certain factions, and it is likely that the new government will do the same when the situation in Yemen begins to stabilize. Internal security officers responsible for brutal crackdowns in such cities as Aden, Taiz, and Hudaydah will likely turn into scapegoats for the interim government and be relieved of their posts.

State of counter-terrorism operations

It is very likely that Saleh’s relatives will stay in command of Yemen’s counter-terrorism units, which will not be readily accepted by the Yemeni street and the youth movement. The major power brokers in Yemen, all of whom participated in the negotiations, will accept the continuity of command. Counter-terrorism operations in Yemen have already been affected by the unrest and AQAP has increased operating space. Counter-terrorism units were re-tasked to protect the central government and any transition phase will likely delay the recommencement of operations, despite external pressure. The loss of control over certain regions in Yemen, and the need to re-establish a presence in others, will likely delay progress in the fight against AQAP. The public will also likely be more sensitive to fallout from already unpopular military operations and less likely to absorb civilian casualties without a backlash.

The Abeeda tribe’s violent reaction in Ma’rib against the government after a botched May 2010 airstrike killed a tribal mediator, instead of the intended AQAP targets, resulted in a temporary cessation of targeted strikes. It is likely that the new government would not seek to resume airstrikes on AQAP targets until it has established itself, which will depend significantly on the political developments following the first phase of the transition. This will negatively impact the government’s fight against AQAP, given that the airstrikes extend the reach of counter-terrorism operations into otherwise unreachable areas. These areas, which are generally under the local tribe’s control instead of the central government’s control, will very likely continue to serve as safe havens for AQAP militants.

The effect of a prolonged ceasefire or halt in counter-terrorism operations will very likely be an increase in AQAP attacks on government and military sites. There is the possibility that due to a reduction of the presence of counter-terrorism units, AQAP militants will be able to extend the geographic space in which they conduct attacks. Should these attacks affect civilian safety, the ability of the government to provide security for its citizens will be called into question.

Reactions from al Qaeda and affiliates

Al Qaeda and its affiliates, including AQAP, will likely laud any form of successful negotiated transition. As in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, the downfall of a government will be seen as the first step in the establishment of an Islamic emirate. Al Qaeda central’s reactions will very likely remain along the same lines as its reaction to the Egyptian revolution, calling on al Qaeda operatives in Yemen to “rise up.” The core leadership might also seek to inspire former mujahideen, Yemenis who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets and returned to their country, to join forces with AQAP in order to establish an Islamic caliphate in Yemen. Al Shabaab, based in Somalia, is very likely to reach out to AQAP again, as it did after the 2009 Christmas day attack, to offer assistance to the group. It is unlikely that al Qaeda affiliates will seek to expand their own influence in Yemen; rather, the strengthening of AQAP will be seen as a way to strengthen the entire al Qaeda network. Al Qaeda central may send skilled operatives to Yemen in order to export tactics, techniques, and procedures.

AQAP will likely seek to further consolidate control in its safe havens and may also take advantage of a nascent government. AQAP leadership will very likely call for recruits to train for jihad to bring about the next step, an Islamic government in Yemen. A projected sidelining of influential al Qaeda sympathizers from the Yemeni government will likely cause AQAP to highlight Saudi Arabia’s manipulation of the new Yemeni government and the group may seek to take advantage of Yemeni nationalism. It also may encourage figures such as Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani to move closer to AQAP. The potential that Yemeni al Qaeda militants will leave AQAP cannot be ruled out, though mass desertion is unlikely. There are indications that some militants who joined AQAP before the unrest broke out to fight the government in Yemen do not fully subscribe to the broader al Qaeda movement.

AQAP has not been visibly involved in the anti-government protests that have occurred throughout the country. The decision to maintain a lower profile may have been made to prevent external actors, such as Saudi Arabia, which has been involved in Yemen’s conflicts in the past, from taking any unilateral actions. The assumed Western and Saudi influence over the negotiation, with the result that Saleh’s relatives in charge of key military units will keep their positions, will likely reinforce AQAP’s rhetoric that paints the Yemeni government as a puppet of the West. The Saudi role in the negotiated transition may also elicit further statements from AQAP on the Saudi regime, which it has labeled as having deviated from true Islam.

There are indications that AQAP has been actively plotting another major international attack, though the details of the attack have yet to emerge. It is likely that the group is taking advantage of the strain that the political unrest in the Middle East has put on Western governments, and the Saudi government, and is seeking to exploit the situation. A Western target is most likely because of the potential for a ripple-effect throughout the al Qaeda network in increasing recruits and inspiring other attacks on similar targets. Intelligence also indicates that al Qaeda militants are moving into Yemen, which may be part of a broader move by the al Qaeda network to further establish a base in the restive country. 

International reactions

U.S. and Western allies

The U.S. will likely seek to establish a solid, working relationship with the new government and will attempt to pressure the government into continuing counter-terrorism operations. The major incentive offered will likely be a commitment to multi-year foreign assistance from the U.S., both in economic and military aid, to increase the stability of the country. Anti-American sentiment will likely remain strong in Yemen given the U.S.’s role in unpopular counter-terrorism operations and a perception of a lack of U.S. support for the opposition during the unrest. The new government will also likely receive assistance from other countries in the West who have strategic interests in Yemen such as the U.K.

Saudi Arabia and GCC

Saudi Arabia will probably remain an active supporter of the Yemeni government in order to ensure stability along its southern border. Economic assistance is very likely to continue, along with an emphasis on counter-terrorism operations and coordination in Yemen. Saudi Arabia will likely be the leader of the GCC countries in regards to general GCC policy toward Yemen, which will remain friendly, but not open, toward the new government. The Yemeni government will not openly embrace the Saudi attempts to influence it, though Saudi assistance will be expected by the government.


The Iranian regime will attempt to forge a closer relationship with a new interim government. It will likely exploit the opportunity to try and shed its reputation as a supporter of the Houthi rebellion. It will attempt to advance its narrative that Yemen has succumbed to the “Islamic awakening.” It is unlikely that Iranian outreach will be accepted in Yemen. 

Prospects for success

The first phase of the transition will not be stable because it will be the result of a compromise amongst the opposition groups and the out-going government. Subsequent jockeying for positions by current opposition leaders will keep the central government weak and divided. The government will remain united against outsiders and will remain resistant to the Yemeni street’s calls for a more representative government. The possibility that Saleh’s relatives will be phased out of positions of power cannot be dismissed. It will lie within the interests the interim government to remove the vestiges of Saleh’s influence. As the unrest in the country dies out, the likelihood that Saleh’s relatives in command of counter-terrorism units will be replaced increases. The original dismissal of demands for the ousting of Saleh’s relatives will likely be reversed.

It is unlikely that the new government will be able to significantly improve the general population’s quality of life in the months that follow any transition, especially without substantial foreign assistance. Government ministries will very likely be in a state of upheaval or uncertainty, which will affect foreign assistance. Donors will be wary of committing to large aid packages because it is unlikely that the ministries will have the structures in place to absorb the aid and disburse it effectively. The likely re-establishment of many of the traditional leading political figures will also lessen the chance of real change occurring in the government’s treatment of its population. Once the JMP, military, and tribal opposition factions have been appeased, the Yemeni street will have very little support. Though the street may continue to demonstrate against the government, it is unlikely that these protests will have the same destabilizing effect that they did when the JMP, military, and tribes participated in them.

It is likely that discontent will lead to the creation of a new, weak opposition faction that will have little power in the near term. This faction will be led by current leaders of the Yemeni street and the youth movement, who will seek to carry momentum forward toward a more democratic and representative form of government. A second new opposition faction will be composed of former regime members. Yemeni government officials who did not defect and sought to protect Saleh will most likely be transitioned out of their posts. These officials will include those in local administrations that worked with Yemeni security forces against the protestors. Additionally, current officials in key posts may be shuffled out of their positions so that the new government can hold influence over those posts. These regime members will attempt to insert themselves into the new government or as leaders of the opposition in order to regain lost status.

The following events may derail the peaceful transition of power:

  • A dramatic increase in the brutality of security forces against protestors that will make giving Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution politically costly.
  • Saleh’s refusal to carry out the negotiated terms or the refusal of current government officials to step down for an interim government.
  • A successful terrorist attack by AQAP on a Western, Saudi, or Yemeni target.

The following events may destabilize the interim government:

  • Civilian casualties during a counter-terrorism operation, whether a targeted strike or a clearing operation, especially if there is an obvious Saudi or U.S. role.
  • A deterioration of the situation in the Horn of Africa and an increased flow of refugees into Yemen, especially if Saudi Arabia closes its southern border.
  • Donor fatigue or hesitation in providing sufficient development and humanitarian assistance to the interim government.