David Ignatius
Opinion writer February 29, 2012

In the turbulent annals of the Arab Spring, last weekend’s ceremony in Yemen was so quiet it was barely noticed. But it marked the transfer of power from an aging autocrat who had ruled his country for nearly 34 years to a new leader who’s saying the right things about reform.

This was a stage-managed change of regime that left some loose ends and unresolved questions. It was a product of backroom dealing and regional realpolitik. But in its very lack of visibility, the Yemen handover offered a counterpoint to the violent and still-uncertain transitions in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

So how did the Yemen story unfold, and what are its lessons as the United States struggles to cope with the other Arab revolutions? Every story in the Arab Spring is different, and there isn’t a “Yemen model” that can easily be replicated, but there are some interesting approaches here, including:

●Working with regional proxies: The transition was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Yemen’s wealthy neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, massaged and bankrolled the process, which culminated in an agreement in November that President Ali Abdullah Saleh would go. The GCC has often been a feeble talk shop in the past, but under Bahraini Secretary General Abdul Latif al-Zayani, the organization is finding its voice.

●Fighting terrorism without sending troops: Al-Qaeda’s potent presence in Yemen made the country an urgent priority. Several years ago the United States began mobilizing resistance to al-Qaeda forces in the south. The effort was coordinated by White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, but it involved Centcom commanders, State Department diplomats and CIA officers. The United States often gives lip service to the “interagency process” while the military does the work, but in Yemen there actually was an aggressive joint strategy without “boots on the ground.”

●Playing tribal politics: As with many Arab countries, Yemen’s state structure is loosely overlaid on powerful tribes. The United States has often botched this tribal factor, but it did better in Yemen, understanding Saleh’s tribal roots as well as those of dissident military officers. The big tribal confederations were persuaded to align against al-Qaeda. The Yemenis are now discussing a federal system that would ease the historical tensions between north and south.

●Finding the right front man: To succeed Saleh, the United States and its allies tapped the longtime vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. An ex-military officer, he understood that the corrupt Yemeni system needed reform. Hadi was elected president last week in a one-man race that gave a veneer of democratic transition. He has promised to hold a referendum within 18 months on a new constitution.

●Reforming the military: In Yemen, as in so many other countries, the military is corrupted because soldiers are paid through their division commanders, who skim money and undermine morale. The United States is encouraging Hadi to pay troops directly. Reform is needed, too, in the two security services headed by Saleh’s son Ahmed and his nephew Yahya. Because the United States depends on these organizations against al-Qaeda, it hopes to finesse change over the next several years. Okay, but if it waits too long, it will seem to be coddling the Saleh family.

●Reaching out to the opposition: The United States was caught flat-footed in Egypt and Libya because it lacked good contacts with the opposition. U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein and his colleagues in Sanaa have done better, meeting regularly with civil society groups and dissidents. Protesters say that they plan to remain camped in “Change Square,” even with Saleh gone, which will test the diplomats’ patience.

The challenge in Yemen is getting closure on transition. As we’ve seen in Egypt, protest can become a way of life — to the point that it threatens the gains the opposition fought to achieve. The United States wants to play its hand slowly — gradually easing Saleh’s relatives from their leadership of the security forces and moving to a more professional military. “This revolution has been stabbed in the back,” Khaled al-Anesi, one of the protest leaders, complained to The Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan. One hopes that Hadi will deliver enough on reform to ease this sense of betrayal.

The very fact that Yemen is so poor and remote is an unlikely source of leverage for the United States and its allies. Curbing corruption and spreading the wealth in this faraway country is the best strategy for getting “buy-in” for the Arab Spring’s quiet revolution.

davidignatius@washpost.com