There was only one candidate on the ballot for Yemen’s presidential election held Monday. The long-time vice president of outgoing strong man Ali Abdullah Saleh, acting president Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, was the only name for which the Yemeni people could vote – the result of a diplomatic deal worked out with Saleh by the Saudis and other Gulf states that will see the president leave power after 33 years later next month.
The agreement, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, calls for Hadi to serve for two years, overseeing the drafting of a new constitution, restructuring the armed forces, and preparing the nation for multi-party elections. Saleh will step down in 30 days, and has been granted immunity from prosecution for the hundreds of deaths that occurred during the uprising – a sticking point with the youthful protestors in the streets who braved bullets in order to rid the country of Saleh’s odious rule.
With chaos nearly guaranteed by Saleh’s departure, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will almost certainly continue to gain ground in the south where the authority of the state has frayed and there are few troops to combat them.
The election, seen as a sham by many in the opposition, nevertheless accomplished the singular goal of removing Saleh from office. Whether it will also prevent him from influencing politics after he is gone is another question. Saleh is currently in the US being treated for burns suffered in an assassination attempt last summer, and he has indicated he still plans to lead his party when he returns. This has many seeing Mr. Hadi as little more than a puppet of Saleh’s and has generated much distrust among the opposition – even those supporting the election of Mr. Hadi.
There were several groups in the north and south who boycotted the elections. In the southern province of Aden, violence broke out at several polling places, killing nine people. But voting in Sana was calm and orderly with a massive turnout.
Hadi, vice president since 1994 when Saleh plucked him from relative obscurity for the largely ceremonial office due to his roots in the southern part of the country which had just fought a vicious civil war with the north, now faces a near impossible situation: he must unite a country that has just spent a year tearing itself apart in a revolt against the authoritarian rule of Saleh. Whether Hadi can accomplish what needs to be done without alienating the factions in the opposition that backed the Saudi deal while appeasing the largely youthful street protestors who are extremely distrustful of Hadi’s still close ties with Saleh, remains to be seen.
The mountain of challenges facing the new president are daunting. He must deal with incipient revolts by Houthi rebels in the north, and unreconstructed separatists in the south. He must also fight a war against AQAP, which took advantage of the year long strife in Yemen to gain a foothold in the south by capturing and occupying dozens of towns and villages. Dislodging the terrorists will not be easy and he will have to do it with an army that is divided between Saleh loyalists, and those following a former ally of Saleh, Major General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar.
The economic problems are immense with high unemployment, a drought affecting agriculture, rampant corruption and cronyism, and an economy that is contracting. Most Yemenis live on less than $2 a day and there are chronic shortages of food and fuel.
The United States is in a difficult position, having supported Saleh for years as both nations have battled AQAP. The US has maintained close ties with some of the military factions run by Saleh’s cronies and relatives in order to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda. The major question for the US is will President Hadi reform the military by removing those factions who have been supporting our efforts against the terrorists? Our aid to Yemen doesn’t amount to much – $50 million in military aid and about the same amount in economic assistance. In short, we have little leverage with the new government, and General al-Ahmar, who it is thought will have a prominent role in the new military that might emerge from the chaos, wants the Obama administration to alter its tactics against the terrorists. Currently, our strategy is to attack a few dozen leadership targets using drone strikes. But these strikes have killed some Yemeni civilians and Ahmar has said that this must stop.
For Hadi, reforming the military means removing many of Saleh’s family from positions they have held – and exploited – for a long time. Some observers believe they won’t go without a fight. If that’s the case, there will be civil war. Other tribesmen who had taken up arms against Saleh will also likely get into the chaotic mix.
Saleh also has allies and cronies in the ministries. Hadi will have to maneuver around clashing loyalties and the possibility that many hands in government will be raised against him, hoping to see Saleh back in power when he returns.
With little control over the military and government, few give Hadi much of a chance to succeed. And the more chaos reigns, the more AQAP gains. The terrorists suffered a blow recently when one of their senior commanders lost his life in a bloody family dispute. And there are factions within AQAP who disagree violently with many of the tactical moves made by the terrorists over the last year.
But this internal turmoil hasn’t slowed AQAP down much. Last month, they captured Radaa, a key southern city and held it for days until withdrawing following a deal to release some prisoners. And they held on to the provincial capital of Zinjibar for weeks last year until the regular army was finally able to dislodge them. US officials say they are growing in number and still have as a major goal attacking inside the US.
Yemen is going to need massive assistance from the international community – both economic and diplomatic – if it is to avoid the catastrophe of total collapse. And even if it receives it, there is little that can be done to bring factions so long opposed to one another together in order to build a civil society out of the blood and chaos of the last year.
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