A new power-sharing agreement between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Yemeni government has turned the page on the last round of conflict in southern Yemen. The settlement was brokered by Riyadh, which wielded both carrots and sticks during marathon negotiations to compel both sides to compromise, relying on the knowledge that both the separatists and the government needed Riyadh as mediator.
However, according to observers, the agreement is still fragile and could fall apart due to discord over any number of problems that may arise during implementation.
A source familiar with the substance of the talks in Riyadh told Al-Ahram Weekly that Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has not yet signed the agreement despite pressures on him to do so, which suggests that the text of the agreement is still not finalised.
Mohamed Abdul-Hadi of the Supreme Council of the Southern Revolutionary Movement (SRM) agrees. “President Hadi still has many reservations and is not satisfied with the outputs of the talks,” Abdul-Hadi told the Weekly by phone from Yemen. Abdul-Hadi believes that Hadi is still resistant to issues related to the formation of a new power-sharing government.
Above all, he wants to replace the current prime minister, Maeen Abdul- Malik, but both Riyadh and the STC insist Abdul-Malik must stay. President Hadi agreed very grudgingly, according to Abdul-Hadi who added that the Yemeni president also opposes deferring the security and economic tracks of the agreement until after the political track (the formation of the new government) is complete.
Sources believe that, practically speaking, even the STC’s renunciation of its demand for self-rule is still up in the air. While the STC has officially announced that it had reversed its declaration of self-rule in southern Yemen and committed to implementing the Saudi-brokered peace agreement, this still has to be translated into practice.
The sources point to the fact that the manifestations of STC self-rule are still in place on the ground in Aden. In the opinion of one source, the reason why the STC was determined to start with the political track was not just to obtain guarantees in advance but also to avert the disintegration of the STC which is controlled by security and military forces that wield military clout in the south. These sources believe that the STC is not serious about dismantling its brigades and handing over its heavy weaponry.
A STC source said, “we have 28 brigades in the south whereas once we had only nine. How can we guarantee the handover of heavy weapons to the coalition when these weapons are the guarantee for the STC’s survival?”
Remarking on the considerable size of the STC’s military, Abdul-Hadi of the SRM said: “It will be hard to convince the STC to hand over its weapons and shut down all those brigades. There were nine in the period of President Abdullah Saleh, even if they were more than was necessary. So, what are we to make of three times their number?”
The Hadi government, for its part, has no major regiments in the south apart from the Presidential Guard which is currently out of the picture. This helps explain why the battles have played out along the border between the governorates of Aden and Abyan.
According to a source, the violence flared up again this week, despite the agreement reached last week. Press reports have confirmed military escalation on the Tariya front east of the Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, last Friday, which is to say two days after Riyadh announced that the two sides had come to terms over what it called “a mechanism for accelerating the Riyadh Agreement”.
Under the agreement, 25 cabinet seats will be distributed among different Yemeni political forces in the south. President Hadi, the STC and the Congregation for Reform (or Islah, the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood’s political facade) will each obtain four seats. The Socialist and Nasserist parties will get four between them, the Hadhramawt Gathering Conference and the Salafi Al-Rashad parties will each get one, and Socotra and Muhra will share a seat. The remainder will go to independents.
The distribution reflects the nature of political balances and understandings. The STC and Islah are rivals of roughly equal strength. If a separate seat for the Hadhramawt Gathering Conference suited Riyadh’s purposes, it was also welcomed by the Hadramis who seek their province’s independence from the STC umbrella and rejection of the STC’s attempt to monopolise representation of southern interests. The STC is primarily based in Aden and, according to sources, it has tried to side line other southern political components.
In the end, however, it had to concede to the allocation of two seats to four other Southern Movement contingents (the Peaceful Movement, the Revolutionary Movement or SRM, the Southern Coalition and the Southern Resistance). All these components have released statements rejecting the modified version of the Riyadh Agreement on the grounds that it abbreviates the Southern Movement to the STC. The STC is a relatively recent political/military contingent in the south whereas the other Southern Movement contingents have existed for at least a decade.
Not only does the Riyadh Agreement lack the consensus of Southern Movement contingents, its proposed power-sharing formula may be fraught with problems. It is trying to bring together mismatched groups with rankling grudges while the biggest headaches, the military/security track and the economic track, have not even been broached yet.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly