Yemen's President Hadi surprises pessimists with moves toward reform

Two months into office, the longtime deputy of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has sacked numerous Saleh appointees and shaken up the military leadership.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Yemen's newly elected President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi waves as he arrives to the Parliament in Sanaa, Yemen, in February.

Yemen's new president, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has confounded pessimistic forecasts about his ability to bring change to his impoverished country.

Yemen is facing myriad threats to its stability and security – not least of all, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and many assumed the country's politics would trundle on as before.

But appearing increasingly comfortable in his position two months into his term, Mr. Hadi has begun what many characterize as a steady if cautious process of reform after taking over from Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had held the country together for 33 years by shrewd maneuvering and a deeply entrenched patronage network.

Hadi, a long-time but relatively obscure Saleh deputy, was brought to power in late February under a Western-backed deal aimed at ending a year-long uprising. Since then he has sacked numerous governors appointed by Mr. Saleh, and initiated reform of the civil and public sector. But most notable, perhaps, has been his cautious entrée into the sensitive process of military restructuring.

This all comes as a surprise to many observers. Hadi was largely seen as a loyal part of the former regime and, many Yemenis worried, a figure who would be unwilling or unable to tackle the issues facing Yemen.

He became president through a one-man election according to a power-transfer deal, negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council to force Saleh, the target of a year-long nationwide uprising, out of office.

Hadi's decade and a half as Saleh's vice president had earned him a reputation as a largely powerless, if enigmatic figure. He was sarcastically referred to as “the statue” by much of Yemen’s intelligentsia for his frequent, silent presence behind Saleh at public events.

Hadi, a military man who hails from Yemen's turbulent south, was also seen as loyal to Saleh: His appointment as vice president was widely seen as a reward for supporting Saleh during Yemen’s north-south 1994 Civil War. And even as crackdowns on demonstrators prompted scores of members of the GPC to break ranks with the former president, Hadi stood by Saleh's side.

So when Hadi came to power with the backing of both Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party and the nation’s establishment opposition parties, few expected him to make a definitive break from the past.

Saleh playing the role of spoiler?

But Hadi appears intent on reform, though many challenges lie ahead.

The restructuring of Yemen’s divided military is among the chief tasks facing Hadi and the unity government, which is also expected to preside over a process of national dialogue and the rewriting of the nation’s constitution.

Largely led by the former president’s family members and tribal allies, Yemen’s military once served as one of the primary foundations of Saleh’s rule. But over the past year, the defection of a number of powerful military leaders has left Saleh’s inner circle divided. Clashes between loyalist forces and troops led by powerful defector Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar transformed swaths central Sanaa into a virtual war zone last fall. The threat of factional violence has temporarily dissipated, but divisions within the military have thwarted efforts to restore order in Yemen.

While Hadi’s steps towards military reform have already earned him plaudits in some quarters – one government spokesman enthusiastically characterized a swarm of decrees issued on April 6  as “the biggest military shakeup in modern Yemeni history” – the reactions of some of his targets have underscored the thorny nature of the process of military restructuring. 

Two military leaders reassigned on April 6 – outgoing Air Force head Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, the former president’s half-brother, and Tareq Mohamed Saleh, a nephew of the former president who commands the Presidential Guard – refused Hadi’s orders. While the Air Force chief eventually bowed to international pressure and accepted the order, the situation of Saleh's nephew remains unclear.

Saleh, who remains in the country and still heads the GPC, appeared to condone his relatives’ insubordination in his public statements, raising fears that he could play spoiler over course of Yemen’s transition. The formerly cordial relationship between Hadi and his predecessor has grown increasingly tense.

Many of Saleh’s relatives remain in control of key military and intelligence positions, as do powerful defectors like Ali Mohsen. With such heavily armed adversaries still in their positions, Hadi will be forced to continue to perform a delicate balancing act as Yemen prepares for the process of national dialogue, which could pave the way for the rewriting of Yemen’s constitution. 

The state-builder that Yemen needs?

The tasks of the transitional period are just part of a litany of challenges facing Yemen’s post-Saleh government. Government forces remain locked in a fierce battle with Al Qaeda-linked militants who have seized control of a number of towns in the nation’s south, while the lingering effects of a year of conflict and uncertainty have pushed Yemen’s already weak economy to the brink of collapse.

And while analysts have characterized Hadi’s first two months in office as reason for cautious optimism, they say that the new president’s work has only just begun.

“So far, Hadi has shown credibility and leadership, but still, he has shown little concrete evidence that his rule will represent a true break from the past,” said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Sanaa-based political analyst, noting that Hadi’s actions so far represent a small step in the right direction. “We are still looking for signs that he will be the state-builder that Yemen so badly needs.”

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