The Middle East Channel

Yemen’s presidential gambit

Yemen’s recently installed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi surprised many observers by moving swiftly to establish control over the battered nation’s military. His efforts, backed by an unusually assertive United Nations mediation effort, offer a rare glimpse of hope for a nation battered by more than a year of instability and political conflict. Few believed ...

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/GettyImages
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/GettyImages

Yemen’s recently installed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi surprised many observers by moving swiftly to establish control over the battered nation’s military. His efforts, backed by an unusually assertive United Nations mediation effort, offer a rare glimpse of hope for a nation battered by more than a year of instability and political conflict.

Few believed that the new government would be able to dislodge the entrenched power of the family of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But Hadi has already moved to sideline two prominent members of that family faction. Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, Saleh’s half brother and commander of the air force, was "promoted" into a position of impotence. Tarik Saleh, Saleh’s nephew and commander of a powerful brigade encircling Sanaa, was offered a new posting in the remote eastern desert province of Hadramaut.  

Hadi’s attempts to exercise authority over Saleh’s family, while courageous, exposed the extent to which he is dependent on the international community to enforce his decrees. Mohammed Saleh staged a temporary rebellion at Sanaa International Airport, while Tarik Saleh simply refused to deploy to Hadramaut. When the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, arrived in the capital, Sanaa, in mid-April, he read the riot act to Ali Abdullah Saleh, warning that no one could hold the new president to ransom. Saleh is protected, at least for now, by a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered immunity law which — by default — gives him scope to meddle in transition politics.

Benomar’s high-profile intervention put renewed pressure on Saleh’s family to comply, or be seen to comply, with the new president’s orders. As a result, Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Mohsen, who runs the well-resourced Republican Guard, is trying to create the impression that he defers to Hadi’s authority. However, few believe that Saleh’s family have accepted the game is over. "Ahmed is being publicly servile but privately insubordinate," one Western diplomat told me, during my recent visit to Sanaa. Constitutionally, Hadi may have the upper hand but in reality he is constrained in moving too far and too fast against Saleh’s family.

Hadi is no doubt aware of the need to placate public opinion, mindful that protesters spent a year on the streets clamoring for Saleh and his relatives to leave power. By contrast, Saleh’s rival, general Ali — who deployed troops from his First Armored Division to protect the protesters’ camp in Sanaa last year – still enjoys a degree of popular support. Saleh complains that his relatives are being unfairly targeted in the military reshuffle, and that Hadi is unduly influenced by Ali Mohsen. However, many Yemenis are inclined to give Hadi the benefit of the doubt, arguing that he is picking his battles cautiously and aware that, for the time being, his position depends on managing the balance of power.

Privately, many Western diplomats say they believe that Hadi wants to break the elite standoff and move beyond balance-of-power politics in order to govern. "Hadi’s a cagey old bird. He’s a field marshal for a reason," said one U.S. official. "Hadi’s finding ways to do business without the old people." If so, he needs to do much more to deploy the symbolic power of the presidency at his disposal. Hadi’s office is poorly staffed. He takes his own notes and he still commutes across the city from his home on the border of Ali Mohsen’s fiefdom to the presidential palace, which is controlled by the Republican Guard, for official meetings. After three decades of life under Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemenis do not want another dictator, but they do want an effective leader who can usher the country toward the creation of a civil state.

The national dialogue — a process of nationwide consultation to agree on changes to the constitution, in accordance with the terms of the transition deal — provides Hadi with an opportunity to bypass regime players to make a direct connection with the Yemeni people. Hadi recently appointed a liaison committee to start preparing for the dialogue, which could take the form of rolling town hall meetings, culminating in a national conference. The format, timing and selection criteria are not clear but youth activists are clamoring to play a prominent role in the preparatory stages, as well as the dialogue.

Hadi’s other, higher-risk option involves leveraging resources available through the international community — chiefly the U.S. government — to build a new military power base, and to gradually constrain the power of the warlords. Hadi has already succeeded in ordering a small mixed deployment in Sanaa of units from the military police, the Central Security Forces, the Republican Guard and the First Armored Division. This is largely a symbolic gesture, since Sanaa is still divided into zones of rival control, but it constitutes a small step toward centralized control. Similarly, Hadi has negotiated with both Ahmed Ali and Ali Mohsen to send units under their control down to the southern governorate of Abyan, where the Yemeni military is prosecuting the battle against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its affiliate Ansar al-Sharia with renewed vigor, alongside Hadi’s new grassroots tribal militia, known as "popular committees."

Hardly anyone believes that Hadi is strong enough to dismiss Ahmed and Ali Mohsen within the coming months. The most that Yemenis can realistically hope for is that both men will be constrained or moved sideways before the end of the two-year transition period. Many would like to see this happen before the national dialogue gets underway, but the timing is likely to depend — in part — on the speed with which Hadi and his U.S. advisors are able to agree on a plan for comprehensive military restructuring. Hadi also needs to build a strong coalition of internal support, if he intends to replace the current system of parallel standing armies with a single, unified chain of command. It’s an ambitious agenda for an untested caretaker president, and it could take a decade to build resilient new institutions — assuming that Hadi, or his successor, can succeed in seeing the project through to completion.

In the meantime, U.S. military planners have urgent short-term operational needs, chiefly the supply of reliable intelligence to furnish their rapidly expanding drones program targeting AQAP. Saleh’s nephew, Ammar, has long been seen as Washington’s point man at the National Security Bureau. Now, he is mentioned as next in line for dismissal, along with his brother, Yahya, who heads the U.S.-trained and funded counter-terrorism unit. It’s hard to imagine that Hadi would move against Ammar and Yahya without tacit consultation with the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, especially while U.S. military trainers are starting to re-engage in Yemen. U.S. officials claim they are committed to "institutions not personalities" but there is precious little clarity on whether the various stakeholder agencies — the C.I.A., Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Defense Department, and State Department — share the same views on this. "The ambiguity of the Americans is damaging," confirms one Yemeni cabinet minister.

Throughout the past decade, U.S. military aid has played a decisive role in Yemen’s internal dynamics, prolonging Saleh’s grip on power even as the country turned against him. Hadi’s ability to open up new channels for foreign governments to pursue their own counter-terrorism objectives may buy him valuable international support, but public opinion remains hostile toward external interference, especially by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Salehs — and future "losers" — may squeal and act as spoilers but their ability to defy Hadi outright is constrained by the prospect of renewed activity at the United Nations Security Council, which could lead to personal sanctions for non-compliance. Additionally, the Obama administration announced an Executive Order today authorizing sanctions against those "obstructing the political process in Yemen." The stakes are high for Hadi personally, for Yemenis, and for the international community.

Ginny Hill is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, where she runs the Yemen Forum.

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