A source close to the political circles of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has confirmed leaks regarding a new initiative that the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed presented to the Houthi-Saleh alliance during a visit to Sanaa Monday.
The source said that the envoy left before obtaining a final response in Sanaa, but that he hopes to return with a few weeks in order to prepare for a new round of settlement talks in the event he receives an agreement in principle.
According to this source, the new initiative contains six points:
Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi will be retained as the legitimate interim president but without authorities. These would be transferred to a vice-president agreed on by all sides and who will be based in Sanaa.
The current Vice-President General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, will step down once the settlement agreement is signed.
A consensus government representative of both sides will be formed in Sanaa within a month after the agreement goes into effect.
The constitution that had been adopted before the Houthis seized control of the capital in September 2014 will be amended.
Internationally supervised elections will be held within a year after the agreement is signed.
Houthi-Saleh forces will withdraw from the central areas of the north (Sanaa, Taiz and Hodeida) following the creation of military-security committees in all provinces to oversee the withdrawal of troops from their positions in the field.
The source, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from Sanaa, reported that political forces there agreed to the agreement in general, although they expressed reservations with regard to retaining Hadi and concerning constitutional provisions for how the country is divided into federal entities.
Another source, close to the internationally recognised government in exile in Riyadh, also confirmed the reports in a telephone interview with the Weekly. He said that the Houthi-Saleh camp, in spite of mounting differences between its two components over their current working agenda, opposes the continuation of President Hadi in power.
The source also believes that the substance of the new initiative is not entirely new. It contains elements of previous initiatives that either failed or were rejected. In addition, he said, it is not based on the platform of the frame-of-references for the settlement process, namely the Gulf Initiative, UN Security Council Resolution 2216, and the outputs of the Yemeni national dialogue.
The latest initiative bears a close resemblance to the Taif Agreement of 1989 that brought an end to the Lebanese Civil War. This is particularly the case with the question of arms and the question of militias retaining weapons outside the control of the state.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s initiative makes no mention of arms, in contrast to the last initiative before that. In accordance with the so-called “Kerry Plan”, the Houthis would be required to surrender their “heavy” weaponry to a third party. The UN envoy’s plan only speaks of the security management of parts of Yemen and ending manifestations of warfare after withdrawal from the abovementioned central areas.
The likelihood, therefore, is that the Houthis will rearm themselves after returning to their stronghold in Saada, giving rise to a situation similar to that in South Lebanon with Hizbullah forces.
On the feasibility of the Ould Cheikh Ahmed initiative, the source from Sanaa told the Weekly, “If no new obstacles emerge or are imposed, the initiative could become the starting point for new elections. The problems surrounding it do not pose impediments, such as those that had arisen in Kuwait or in the Kerry plan, which called for the surrender of arms to a third party, which is unacceptable.”
Local news reports in Yemen suggest that there is a divergence within the Houthi-Saleh alliance over how to respond to the initiative. Signs of tensions emerged during Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s recent visit.
For example, it was reported that Saleh insisted that the UN envoy meet with the politburo jointly formed recently by the Houthi Movement and the General People’s Congress, so as to ensure that Mohamed Abdel-Salam, the Houthi security chief who represents the Houthi delegation, would not meet with the UN envoy separately.
This report comes in the wake of rumours to the effect that Abdel-Salam has established contact with the Saudi security committee with which he had previously struck an agreement, in Dhahran, regarding the creation of committees to monitor a halt to Houthi missile fire from northern Yemen into Saudi Arabia.
This implies that Saleh continues to support the option of threatening the Saudi borders and that the aforementioned Houthi-Saudi agreement could become the focal point of a crisis within the Saleh-Houthi alliance, especially if that agreement had been concluded in secret.
The Ould Cheikh Ahmed initiative provides for an approximately year-long transitional period in which political and military issues would be resolved in tandem. In the opinion of Khaled Alyan, a political analyst and journalist close to Hadi circles in Riyadh, the period is not sufficient.
“For example, during the previous elections a crisis emerged over voter registration lists. That matter, alone, following the current war, will take longer than a year and this does not take into account procedural processes and arrangements related to the elections themselves,” he said in interview with the Weekly.
He also pointed to other problems, such as the thorny question of the provinces or states, which was the subject of one of Saleh’s reservations on the new initiative and which is intimately related to the question of amending the constitution.
Ahmed Rafik, an official in the pro-Saleh General People’s Congress (GPC), agrees that a year is too short. He believes that the transitional process could take at least two years. However, he stressed, as long as both sides reach an agreement on it, then the duration, per se, should not be a problem. On the other hand, he does not expect things to proceed smoothly.
“There still remains another round of war before a settlement can be reached,” he said. Rafik did not comment on the question of differences between Saleh and Al-Houthi apart from to say, “There is a divergence in opinion.”
On the prospect of a settlement, Alyan said: “What we need to grasp from the experience of the Houthi-Saleh alliance in the context of the current situation in Yemen is that Saleh has a problem with President Hadi. He insists that Hadi must go and the same applies to General Mohsen Al-Ahmar.
His problem is thus political and it can be resolved in conjunction with conciliatory gestures on the part of the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia in particular, that will guarantee him or his son an opportunity to stage a political comeback in the future government of Yemen.
The Houthi question, on the other hand, is much more complicated. Abdul- Malek Al-Houthi believes that he has an inherent right to rule stemming from the line of the Zeidi “imamate” and that if there is to be any power sharing this will derive from the magnanimous condescension of “the master”, not from the ballot box. In addition, he will not agree to surrender arms, because this is what brought him to power and enabled him to secure control over the country.
“The chances of the Houthis surrendering their arms are as great as the chances of Hizbullah in Lebanon surrendering a single weapon to the state,” Alyan said.
The greatest obstacle to the recent initiative — or any initiative — is the frame-of-reference. “Even if Ould Cheikh Ahmed did not base his initiative on the frames-of-reference, having decided to circumvent them temporarily in order to return to them later, the Houthis will be bound by only one frame of reference: Tehran.”
Or, as Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi, editor-in-chief of Al-Shahed, put it, “Tehran has to affix its seal to any agreement. It is impossible for any initiative to circumvent this. Recall that [Tehran] decimated the negotiations in Kuwait in the last minutes and not just the last hours. If this context is correct, then we can say that we are looking at an initiative that seeks to normalise (ie reconcile) with the status quo or, more accurately, the coup.”
Alyan adds: “We need to read the map of the field when assessing any initiative. There are Houthi leaders who have grown rich from the war, in spite of the poverty that grips the country and its people and that they use as a vehicle for their conflict and a means to promote their interests.
Those people who came from the mountains of Saada and had a chance to rule will not give up power easily without demanding a large share of power [in any future arrangement]. Officials from the UN and elsewhere in the world are coming to see them in Sanaa where they are in the seat of power. It is hard to give all that up. Al-Houthi, himself, said as much, ‘We are prepared to fight until the Day of Judgement.’ ”
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly.