A relative unknown has taken the helm of Yemen, where citizens are hoping for real change after 33 years under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the West is seeking improved stability to contain a resurgent Al Qaeda.
The newly inaugurated Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi joined Mr. Saleh for a farewell ceremony today, marking the departure of the fourth autocrat since the Arab Spring began. Mr. Hadi, who won an uncontested election last week, now stands tasked with holding together a fragile nation further strained by a year of protests.
The Arab world's poorest country, Yemen has long been beset by dire economic challenges, a southern secessionist movement, restive Houthi rebels in the north, powerful tribal rivalries, and the terrorist franchise Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Although Hadi served as Saleh's deputy for 17 years, many Yemenis describe him as a figure who has remained largely in the shadows. That has perhaps given him a small window to gain the support of a country largely fed up with Saleh, but it has also left many uncertain about the future of their nation.
“Over the years he’s been a weak man in terms of personality. We haven’t seen him do anything for the country,” says Osama Shamsan, a student protester in Sanaa. He describes Hadi as a “statue,” always present, but always in the background of Yemeni politics. “But is he going to step up now? What is he going to do?”
Yemeni analysts say that throughout his career, Hadi never had strong political ambitions and happened into his positions, rather than obtaining them through political maneuvering.
“Hadi has a quiet personality,” says Najeeb Ghallab, a political researcher in Sanaa. “He didn’t have plans or ambitions to become the vice president.” Similarly, in a country where regime insiders, defected military leaders, and powerful tribal sheikhs have been seen as jockeying for power in a post-Saleh country, Hadi wasn't seen as angling for the presidency.
A southerner who avoids the spotlight
Hadi started his career in the military, during which time he spent a considerable amount of time training abroad. He received two years of officer training at Britain's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, obtained a graduate degree from the Nasser Military Academy in Egypt, and trained with the Soviet military.
The experience is likely to pay off as the US will likely continue to lean heavily on Hadi and the Yemeni military as they continue to pursue AQAP, whose largely ineffective attacks on Western targets have nevertheless raised significant concern in Washington. At his swearing-in ceremony on Saturday, Hadi pledged to continue fighting militants, calling it a “patriotic and religious duty.”
During the nation’s civil war, in which the south rebelled against Saleh's unification of Yemen, Hadi – a southerner – stayed loyal to the president and was appointed vice president several months later, in October 1994. Hadi’s ability to avoid the spotlight and any controversial public stances made him an attractive candidate to oversee the nation during its post-Saleh transition.
“I think being on the sideline benefited him because not many people could identify him with something bad or something so terribly wrong to the point that they could not support him,” says Khalid Al-Akwaa, director of the Center of Public Administration Development at Sanaa University. “He’s been around, but he has not been around.”
Originally from the south, Hadi may find difficulty winning over those in his birthplace as there is some criticism that he did not do enough to help the region as vice president. During much of Saleh’s rule, the south complained that it was too often neglected by politicians in Sanaa and a secessionist movement has taken root there.
Still, Hadi is likely to enjoy a small window of time in which he has the support of a majority of Yemenis, if for no other reason than he is not Saleh.
Overseeing a new constitution, military reform
Over the course of his two-year term, he will be tasked with overseeing the drafting of a new constitution, military reforms, and a referendum that will pave the way to competitive elections.
The question on many Yemenis’ minds now is: After so many years in the shadows, will their new president possess the necessary political will and strength to stop those from Saleh’s inner circle who still hold positions of power here from inhibiting the reform process?
Additionally, some Yemenis say he may struggle to make substantive changes because the nation has not produced a cohesive plan for how to address the nation’s problems.
“I’m not optimistic that a change will happen, because there is a lack of a national plan of what Yemen needs in the coming two years,” says Abdullah Bashir, publisher of Al-Jumhoor, a weekly newspaper in Sanaa.