Yemen: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Following 10 months of popular protests calling for his resignation, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement last week to transfer power to his vice president. It's unlikely, though, that a piece of paper will bring a peaceful transition to this beleaguered Arabian Peninsula state.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated "the Yemeni government and the opposition," and called the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, "a significant step forward for the Yemeni people in their quest for a unified, democratic, secure, and prosperous Yemen." It's only a single step forward though, and with Saleh's current maneuvering in Sanaa, it's coupled with two-steps backward.

Since the agreement was signed, "plainclothes government thugs" shot dead at least five protesters in the capital. Meanwhile, "Yemeni troops appear to have unlawfully killed as many as 35 civilians in the city of Taizz," the country's third-largest, according to Human Rights Watch.

Alas, violence -- from state-sponsored forces to independent militias, not to mention drones strikes from the U.S. -- is commonplace in Yemen. That Saleh has returned to Sanaa and continues to issue statements as if he were in power -- even after accepting the deal in Riyadh -- is a perhaps a bigger threat to the transition than the continuing violence across the country.

Laura Kasinof and Kareem Fahim report: "The president had agreed to sign similar agreements several times, then backed out... Although the signing was the first time Mr. Saleh actually agreed to give up formal authority, it is unclear how big a political presence he hopes to maintain. A son and three nephews retain powerful posts in the military and intelligence service."

So, how are there going to be elections in three months?

Despite the Saleh family's control of the security architecture, much of country is outside of
government's control. Clashes have risen to unprecedented levels since the uprising began in early 2011. For example, Jeb Boone points to one tribe's ability to "completely embarrass the Republican Guards," suggesting that the central government has lost its monopoly on violence.

Another serious threat to democratic development, and one scarcely mentioned in the Western press, is the dangerous humanitarian situation. "We are seeing chronic deprivation made worse by continuing violence," UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg said yesterday.

Malnutrition is a major challenge, compounded by severe fuel shortages, the deterioration of school-sponsored meals, and drops in imports. Access to aid provisions has been threatened by enduring violence. It's also worth noting that the political conflict notwithstanding, "34 per cent of the population is without access to a safe water source," according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Even with the GCC deal ostensibly in place, has the drawn out political stalemate pushed the country to a point of no return? Might Western states still consider an assets freeze for Saleh if he continues to meddle -- and indeed tip the scales -- in governmental affairs? And what is the U.S. doing to address the humanitarian crisis?

For more, come listen to Laura Kasinof, a New York Times correspondent who has reported from Sanaa since 2009, as she reflects on Yemen's uprising this coming Thursday, December 1, at 12:15pm. We'll be live-streaming (here) the discussion which will cover opposition movements, U.S. counterterrorism policy, and the Saudi role in Yemeni affairs.