Yemen stands between violent collapse and a thin hope of a peaceful transfer of power. Under increasing pressure from international and regional actors, President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally signed a transition agreement on Nov. 23. Under the agreement, he immediately transferred significant authorities to his vice president and is scheduled to officially leave office after early elections that are scheduled for Feb. 21. This was an important first step, but one that fell far short of solving Yemen's problems.
Many challenges remain, including holding signatories responsible for implementing the transitional agreement, adequately addressing unresolved issues of political inclusion and justice, and improving dire economic and humanitarian conditions. Moreover, tensions between Yemen's competing armed power centers, particularly Saleh's family on one hand versus defected general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the (unrelated) powerful al-Ahmar clan on the other, remain unresolved and are a potential flashpoint for further violence. One of the most challenging tasks during the first phase of the transition will be securing a durable ceasefire, removing all military and armed tribesmen from urban centers, and beginning meaningful reform of the military and security forces.
It's a tall order, and international actors have a part to play. Threats of targeted sanctions against Saleh and his family from members of the U.N. Security Council played a part in bringing some regime hard-liners to the negotiating table. Now, with an agreement signed, implementation requires that pressure must be applied to all sides: Saleh and his supporters on one hand and the opposition parties and their affiliates on the other. For now, support has coalesced around Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who, according to the agreement, will be the consensus candidate in the February elections. As a relatively neutral figure, Hadi may encourage some measure of compromise and security.
Adding to the uncertainty over Yemen's future are southern activists whose demands may yet range from immediate independence to a federation of North and South Yemen, and Houthi rebels in northern Yemen who seek greater rights for their community and a degree of local autonomy. And, while politicians negotiate in Sanaa, government forces and local tribesmen are in an ongoing fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Abyan governorate. The one certainty is that the struggle for Yemen will last long into 2012.
Several states in the region are surviving on luck: their infrastructure near collapse, their political systems eaten away by corruption, their public services almost nonexistent. On top of all this, Tajikistan, for example, now faces a growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies, something it has almost zero capacity to contain. Adding to the country's woes, relations with neighboring Uzbekistan are at an all-time low, with their long-running water dispute no closer to resolution and occasionally deadly border incidents threatening to spark deeper violence.
As for Uzbekistan itself, Washington increasingly relies on Tashkent for logistics in Afghanistan, but the brutal nature of the regime means it is not only an embarrassing partner but also, ultimately, a very unreliable one. Already there has been at least one attack on the rail line transiting U.S. material through the country. Given how U.S.-Pakistan relations seem to hit a new low every week, Washington may feel it has little choice, but it certainly seems to be "out of the fire and into the frying pan" at best.
Then there is volatile Kyrgyzstan. Without prompt, genuine and exhaustive measures to address the damage done by the 2010 ethnic pogroms in the south, the country risks another round of mass violence. The ultranationalist mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, who has in the past claimed that Bishkek's writ does not extend to the southern city and now muses out loud about creating a municipal police force independent of the Ministry of Interior, will no doubt continue to fire shots across the bows of the central government in 2012.
Reassuring declarations from the government in Bujumbura sound hollow, as the end of the Arusha consensus, which concluded the civil war in 2000, combined with the deteriorating political climate that followed the boycott of the 2010 elections, have contributed directly to an escalation of violence and insecurity. The elements of the peace deal are being dismantled one by one. The not-so-hidden struggle between the opposition and the ruling party, combined with the government's intensifying repression, is leaving ever more victims since the 2010 polls. Independent media are harassed by the authorities, who are allegedly commissioning targeted assassinations. At the same time, state corruption is on the rise, governance indicators are in the red, and social tension is mounting as living conditions deteriorate due to rising prices of basic commodities. Unless the government takes measures to reverse these trends, Burundi could edge toward renewed civil war in 2012.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Joseph Kabila has been re-elected president and officially sworn in, but that's unlikely to satisfy his political opponents, particularly supporters of opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi. The vote was badly flawed, with reports of pre-marked ballots, voter intimidation, localized violence, widespread mismanagement and fiddled results. The election commission and Supreme Court were also stuffed with Kabila loyalists, rendering their arbitration worthless in the eyes of an angry opposition that may be marginalized for the next five years if legislative election results are also mishandled.
The election standoff is a symptom of larger trends. In his five years in power, Kabila has stacked many national institutions in his favor, leaving his opponents with few avenues to pursue grievances peacefully. International players have also quietly disengaged from Congolese affairs. Despite the sizable U.N. presence in Congo, and the involvement of donor countries like the United States and Britain, together with the European Union, little has been done to check Kabila's consolidation of power.
As calls for international arbitration fall on deaf ears in Kinshasa and most Western capitals, Congo's electoral authorities appear unable to salvage any sense of credibility from results. Kabila's illegitimate mandate threatens not only Congo's peace and stability. The muffled international response to the flawed polls, and the silent acquiescence of regional leaders, bode ill for democracy across the continent. If only the African Union reacted to stolen elections with the outrage it reserves for coups -- both are, after all, equally unconstitutional changes of government -- politicians might at least think twice before rigging.