When Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the Gulf agreement in Riyadh over Thanksgiving weekend, mandating that he step down from power, the protesters camped out in Change Plaza at first didn't know whether to celebrate or explode in anger, so they did both.
Their ambivalence is understandable. The agreement does formally end Saleh's presidency, but it also grants him amnesty from prosecution and, more significantly, leaves him and his family free to participate in politics in the future. Most importantly, his relatives still command the military and security apparatus. Forces loyal to Saleh continue to kill civilians in Taiz, the relatively cosmopolitan city in the middle of the country. Many wonder whether there has been any change in Yemen at all.
According to the agreement, Vice President Mansour Hadi is now acting president. He has called for early presidential elections to be held on Feb. 28, 2012, and announced the formation of a military committee to oversee the withdrawal of troops from the cities, the resolution of Yemen's multiple armed conflicts, and the rebuilding of the armed forces. His announcement paved the way for the new prime minister from the opposition, Mohamed Salem Basindwah, to form a new government made up of opposition members and Saleh's ruling party members -- half each. The new government will preside over the presidential elections in February, followed by a two-year interim period in which a new constitution will be written. Another set of parliamentary and presidential elections will follow the adoption of the new constitution in two years' time.
While on the surface it looks as though the Arab Spring, or the Arab Awakening as it is called locally in Yemen, has toppled another ruler, the details of the agreement appear more like a victory for Saleh.
What a difference a few months can make. As of last spring, Saleh's top military commander, Ali Muhsin, had defected and the most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid, had broken with him and was involved in a fierce military conflict with government forces in the capital. Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the European Union were calling for his immediate resignation and were actively seeking his ouster. In June, Saleh and most of his top officials were seriously wounded in an attack on the president's compound and he was flown to Riyadh for extensive medical treatment. Most thought the president was finished.
But Saleh's relatives managed to scuttle American and European attempts to form a new government without him during the summer, and upon his return to Sanaa in September, he resumed his duties as president. Thus Saleh signed the Gulf agreement from a position of power rather than fearing for his life, and the terms of his departure largely reflect his dictates.
The Gulf agreement is flawed for other reasons. It is a deal between Saleh's ruling party and the group of opposition parties known as the Joint Meeting Party, perhaps better translated as Common Ground. Left out of the agreement are the protesters in the street, the al-Huthi rebels who now control much of the north of the country, and the southern movement demanding secession and the formation of a new state. Incredibly, the agreement stipulates that Hadi is the only acceptable candidate for president in the next elections, meaning that Saleh's vice president will oversee the writing of a new constitution and will supervise the elections for a new government in two years. The deal, which supersedes the Yemeni constitution, also gives Hadi the final word in any dispute between the parties to the agreement. (Let's not forget that it was Hadi who was formally in charge during the summer, when Saleh's clan remained firmly entrenched against all efforts to dislodge them.)