Yemen's Future

By Amar C. Bakshi, CNN

Yemen's embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, told the country's largest opposition bloc he would step down at the beginning of next year, a ruling party official told CNN.

The opposition rejected the offer, demanding that Saleh resign immediately.

Saleh defied calls for his resignation."Those who want to reach power through a coup will be unable to,” Saleh said in a televised speech. “This is impossible. The scenario will turn into a civil war.”

To get some perspective on Saleh and Yemen, I turned to two former U.S. ambassadors to the region: Barbara Bodine, who was ambassador to Yemen from 1997-2001, and Skip Gnehm, who was ambassador to Kuwait from 1991-1994 and Jordan from 2001-2003. Gnehm also served as chargé d'affaires and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen from 1978-1981.

Bodine’s initial points:

Yemenis were working toward change well before the Tunisian uprising.

“What we’re witnessing in Yemen has roots and causes that pre-date the events in Tunisia and Egypt. In fact, I was in Yemen for a week in January –before [Tunisian President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali stepped down – and met with some members of the [Yemeni] opposition who were already talking about their plans for protests and demonstrations and their demands for changes and reforms. They were quite open about their demands that Ali Abdullah Saleh step down.

“As we’ve seen in many of these other protest movements, three key facts drove the demonstrations: (a) the tremendous youth bulge; (b) massive unemployment and a dysfunctional economy; and (c) promises of democracy and reform that had been partially met in Yemen but had stalled out.

“People should not see Yemen as a copycat of North Africa, although certainly Yemen’s protests were amplified and accelerated by North Africa.”

Saleh’s days in power are numbered.

“It is going to be very difficult for President Saleh to remain in power. Even a week ago I would say there was a possibility of a negotiated arrangement between leaving immediately and finishing out his term in 2013. But with Bloody Friday and the massive defections – diplomats, military and the business community – I think his position has become untenable.”

There is the possibility of a great power vacuum.

“One of the major differences [between Egypt and Yemen] is that there is not an apparent successor. … The military in Yemen does not occupy the same place politically, nationally or economically that the military occupies in Egypt.

“If the military were to try to take over [in Yemen], I am not at all confident that the demonstrators or other elements of Yemeni society would be as accepting of it as they were in Egypt.”

Gnehm adds:

This could lead to a nightmare scenario in which Yemen becomes a failed state like Somalia.

“Following the collapse of the government – either through the resignation of the president or an assassination – there could be an ensuing fight over who will replace him. There is no single faction with enough clout to name the successor.

“You could really have a situation in which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (often overrated, but they are there and organized and can exploit situation rather easily) have freedom to move and plot. You could see extremists   coming from Saudi Arabia or coming back from Pakistan-Afghanistan, setting up a base much like they did in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion.

Bodine’s conclusion:

The best-case scenario would be a meeting of representatives of the various powers and some sort of consensus coming forward on a leader.

"I have no idea who that would be – [likely] somebody who is at least acceptable to all the parties, who can get the government functioning again, and has credibility to appoint an electoral commission, reaffirm unity and the constitution and get the process going for the two-year-delayed elections.”

For additional analyses of the situation in Yemen, check out ReutersThe Hilland al Jazeera.

CNN’s Mohammed Jamjoon contributed to this piece.

Amar Bakshi