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Can the new leader 'dance on the heads of snakes'?

Ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh often said that ruling his fractious country was like "dancing on the heads of snakes". Can Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the new man on the job, manage such a precarious act?


For Yemenis who have grown up or grown old with the familiar strongman ensconced in the presidential palace, Monday’s handover ceremony was riveting TV viewing – a historic milestone in their ancient land.

In the chandeliered interiors of the presidential palace, watched by a gathering of senior Yemeni officials and foreign diplomats, Yemen’s ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, symbolically handed over the country’s flag to the newly inaugurated President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

In a sharp dark suit, his face – the one that has dominated Yemeni public buildings for more than three decades – showing no trace of the extensive burns he suffered in last year’s assassination attempt, Saleh made a historic declaration.

Ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, hands over the flag to newly inaugurated President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, hands over the flag to newly inaugurated President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

"I hand over the banner of the revolution, of the republic, of freedom, of security and of stability... to safe hands," he said.

But as the relatively unknown, relatively low-key new president accepted the flag, many Yemenis wondered if Hadi - who served as the country’s vice president for 17 years - has what it takes to maintain security and stability in one of the world’s most unruly, fractious, and impoverished nations.

“The first step was getting Saleh to step down and to have some sort of transition of power,” said Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation. “But Hadi can’t hold the reins for a long time. He just doesn’t have the political skill to hold a country like Yemen together.”

Perched at the entrance to the Red Sea, the world’s poorest Arab nation has long been beset by dire socio-economic and political challenges.

Twelve years after the unification of North and South Yemen, the South is bristling with discontent and is home to a secessionist movement growing in strength.

To the north, a Houthi rebellion has occasionally drawn in Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s powerful, oil-rich northern neighbour.

Home to al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen has the right mix of poverty and Islamic conservatism to make it an ideal al Qaeda recruitment and staging post. Over the past year, as the Arab Spring uprising spread, al Qaeda and its followers have taken advantage of the power vacuum to spread its influence and control.

Last, but by no means the least, is the tricky business of governing Yemen, a largely tribal country with fierce kinship alliances, powerful sheikhs and traditionally well-armed tribesmen who are more familiar with tribal law – urf in Arabic – than the malfunctioning Yemeni legal system.

Saleh himself lasted 33 years in power by courting tribal sheikhs, buying allegiances, bribing malcontents, or simply crushing those he could not co-opt. It was a nifty political act that Saleh himself likened to “dancing on the heads of snakes”.

The snake charmer is gone, but the old snakes remain

By all accounts, the master snake charmer has been defanged. Bowing to considerable US and Gulf pressure, Saleh is expected to go into exile – probably to Ethiopia, according to news reports.

But the old snakes remain and many experts are not optimistic about Yemen’s prospects for a democratic transition.

“Hadi does not have a powerbase. The same players, the same institutional structures are still in place in Yemen,” said Nora Ann Colton, a professor at the University of East London and author of the upcoming book, The Political Economy of Yemen. “Saleh still has his cronies, his men who are used to the way things are done. How do you get all these people to change overnight?”

All Saleh’s men, all in the family

Like many Arab dictators, Saleh oversaw a system of concentric circles of power and influence around him, with his closest family members holding critical positions in the country’s military and security establishments.

Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmad, heads the elite Special Forces and Republican Guards. One of his many powerful nephews, Tariq Saleh, controls the Presidential Guard. Another nephew, Yahya Saleh, heads the Central Security Service and has received millions of US dollars to fight al Qaeda, according to Barfi.

It is not clear whether Saleh’s son and powerful nephews will go into exile and if they don’t, whether they will be disempowered.

Another shadowy figure - some say the biggest snake - is Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, a powerful former Saleh ally who hails from Saleh’s northern Yemeni village of Bayt al-Ahmar.

Last year, Gen. Ahmar split from the former president and joined the opposition. During the anti-Saleh uprisings, his men have clashed with security forces on the streets of the capital of Sanaa.

In his policy paper, Yemen’s Regime Change Gets Personal, Barfi noted that Gen. Ahmar’s “decision to abandon Saleh stemmed less from his love of the constitution and democracy than from his desire to even the score with the president and his son Ahmad Saleh, with whom he has long clashed”.

Although Gen. Ahmar has publicly promised to leave Yemen after Saleh’s ouster, he has so far failed to keep his word.

US point man focused on Washington’s old obsession

In an acknowledgement of the need to revamp the country’s military, the US is expected to provide assistance for the restructuring of Yemen’s armed forces.

In an interview with the New York Times, John Brennan, the US point man for Yemen said, “There needs to be a national army and national military that is going to fight against al Qaeda,” before going on to add that US assistance will go only to military and security units that are commanded by individuals who “are going to be professional and direct their forces appropriately.”

Washington has long been criticized for focusing solely on the fight against al Qaeda in a country with multiple socio-economic and security challenges that require complex, nuanced policies.

The fact that Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, has been the Obama administration’s point man in Yemen does not bode well for a change in US policy on Yemen.

The US has had an often frustrating relationship with Saleh on the counterterror front since al Qaeda’s 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the southern Yemeni port of Aden.

Since his inauguration, experts have noted that Hadi has been quick to make the right noises about the fight against al Qaeda.

But they aren’t so sure of his ability to tackle the other existential threats confronting Yemen – such as the southern secessionist movement.

Our man from the South

Southern dissatisfaction with Sanaa runs wide and deep: southerners complain of economic, political and cultural oppression by the North. Residents of the former British protectorate that had a Marxist government before unification say the Yemeni government has extracted oil and gas from the South, confiscated land, and systematically discriminated against southerners when it comes to government and military jobs.

But although Hadi hails from the south, he stayed loyal to Saleh during the 1994 southern rebellion. Shortly after the rebellion was crushed, Hadi took on the country’s vice presidency, a position he held for 17 years before he was offered up as Saleh’s successor in last week’s one candidate vote under a Gulf-brokered deal.

Some of the most violent disturbances during last week's vote occurred in the South following the secessionist Southern Movement’s boycott of the vote.

During his two-year term, Hadi must oversee the drafting of a new constitution and a referendum that will pave the way to competitive elections.

For the moment, many Yemenis still recovering from the euphoria of Saleh’s fall are content to give him a chance.

Colton however worries if the average Yemeni’s expectations for change exceed Hadi’s ability to deliver in just two years.

But when it comes to Yemen, the diagnoses have been dire for so many years that some experts say the country can beat the odds. “I never agreed with the view that Yemen is on the brink,” said Barfi. “Yemen is Yemen and it must be viewed through the prism of Yemen, you can’t look at it through the prism of the West. Yemen has never collapsed - even during the [2011] revolution and I don’t think it will collapse.”

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