Why the death of Saleh offers a chance for peace in Yemen

Supporters of Shiite Houthi rebels attend a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The killing of Yemen’s ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh by the country’s Shiite rebels, as their alliance crumbled, has thrown the nearly three-year civil war into unpredictable new chaos. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

Yemen’s former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is dead. He was killed last week by his own allies, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, after he decided to break with them and shift his allegiance to the other side in our country’s three-year-old war. Saleh sometimes referred to his collaboration with the volatile Houthis, who he hoped would help to restore him to power, as “dancing on the heads of snakes.” This time, however, the snakes were faster, and he paid for it with his life.

We should not rejoice over his death. I and the other leaders of our peaceful revolution never wished him this end, but he reaped what he sowed. His cynical alliance with the Houthis enabled them to storm the capital Sanaa and other provinces in 2014. Together they undermined the state and committed many crimes against the Yemeni people.

Yet, the war goes on. The forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which intervened in the civil war to counter Iranian influence, are now said to have liberated 85 percent of the country. Only a small area remains under the control of the Houthi militias.

The Saudis and the Emiratis, however, are refusing to allow the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has elected in 2012 as part of the transitional agreement to democracy that followed our 2011 revolution, to return to Yemen and exercise power. All the islands, coasts, airports, ports and institutions in those areas are controlled either directly by the UAE and Saudi forces or through the local militias they have created. Their blockade has caused famine and disease, and epidemics have swept across the country while the Arab Gulf countries, which are sitting on a sea of oil, have done nothing to remedy the deteriorating situation.

On several occasions, UAE forces have prevented Hadi from landing in Aden, which has been freed from Houthi control and declared as a temporary capital. Employees’ salaries have been unpaid for more than a year. Hospital patients are left untreated. The people are suffering from lack of access to basic services, including electricity, fresh water and schools.

Why are the Saudis and the Emiratis behaving this way? Because they are afraid of the Yemeni people’s desire for democracy, which we demonstrated to such powerful effect during our peaceful revolution six years ago. They are imposing a form of collective punishment on Yemen for its success in overthrowing the dictator Saleh, and they want to protect their own monarchic regimes by bringing Yemen back to its pre-2011 authoritarian state. I am convinced that this effort will fail, since no one can break the will of peoples longing for freedom, dignity and democracy.

Hopefully, Saleh’s death offers an opportunity to escape the vicious cycle of bloodshed. Yemenis must work with the international community to develop a road map based on the agreements reached at the U.N.-brokered national dialogue conference in the wake of the revolution. President Hadi and his government must be allowed to return to Aden. Saudi Arabia and the UAE must hand over control of all ports, airports, islands and coasts to the legitimate authority. The militias and armed groups in the liberated provinces should be disarmed, and their weapons handed over to the national army.

At the same time, the Hadi government should start negotiations with the Houthi militia over the removal of weapons and a government of national unity that will hold referendum on the draft constitution and organize corresponding elections.

If this plan is to succeed, Saleh’s political party must choose a new leadership that believes in democracy and is not tied to his family or the disastrous policies that he used when in power.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should also lift the blockade completely, stop their air strikes and provide the Yemeni government and army with logistical support.

Most importantly, the Houthi militia must become a political entity that renounces violence. In fact, a successful peace plan in Yemen counts on that.

As long as we share many values and belong to the same country, we have no choice but to live in peaceful coexistence and tolerance. The war will have to end one day. Let us move to stop it now.

Tawakkol Karman is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who leads the group Women Journalists Without Chains.

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