Yemen is on edge. It's been more than a year since Yemen's longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed to step down from power, but calm still seems elusive. On Saturday, 17 soldiers were killed in an ambush by alleged al Qaeda militants in the restive Mareb province, where the government has appeared nearly powerless to stop frequent sabotage against oil pipelines and electricity infrastructure. To the south, recent clashes between Yemeni forces and armed locals in the province of al-Dhale have left at least three civilians dead, prompting protests about the excessive use of force and inflaming anti-government sentiments in the separatist hotbed. In the capital itself, nerves have been strained by a string of attacks on security officials by motorcycle-riding gunmen, the latest of which left a counterterrorism officer seriously wounded.
Many local officials and Yemen-based diplomats insist that Yemen's post-Saleh transition is moving forward. Such assurances notwithstanding, anxiety is rampant across the country, fueled by fears that the various factions of this divided nation will be unable to come together to prevent Yemen from falling apart.
"Yemen can't move forward in a situation like this," said Hamza al-Kamaly, an activist who was recently beaten while attending a demonstration against a Saleh-era military commander. "The country is still divided, the military is still divided, and the old regime still has a huge amount of power."
While street protests were the catalyst, Saleh's exit from power was ultimately secured by an internationally backed agreement, mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last November. It was essentially an elite compromise, forged between Saleh's ruling General People's Congress (GPC) and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of Yemen's established opposition parties, aimed at securing a peaceful transfer of power as the country appeared to be sliding towards anarchy. Defections by key military leaders had split the Yemeni armed forces into opposing halves. Factional clashes extended to the capital itself, and government's control over much of the rest of the country appeared to dissipate.
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The immediate goal may have been securing a peaceful transition, but the terms of the GCC deal provided the outline for a much broader process. Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh's longtime deputy, was tapped as a consensus candidate for the presidency, ruling along with a unity government split between the GPC and the opposition JMP during his two-year transitional term. If all goes according to plan, 2014 will see the election of a new president and a new parliament under a rewritten constitution, following the reform of Yemen's split military and the peaceful resolution of years-old disputes between the central government and increasingly powerful groups outside of Yemen's formal power structure.
But regardless of inclusive aims, Yemen's transitional process was ultimately the product of negotiations between traditional power brokers, and it was aimed at pacifying key players at least as much as it was at paving the way for a new future. Looking forward, the key question remains whether Yemen's varied political factions will be able to come together to bring the country towards stability while laying the groundwork for an inclusive democracy. And as the people prepare for the highly anticipated conference of National Dialogue, achieving said goals continues to appear to be a nearly insurmountable challenge, predicated on the ability of Yemeni stakeholders to rise above crippling divisions to make the mutual concessions necessary to make a true break with the past.