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Yemen’s former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh may no longer be in power, but his shadow still hovers over the new government. Saleh was ousted from power under an agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on November 23, 2011, which he signed under international pressure. The GCC initiative required the then-president to transfer power to his vice president in return for immunity for him and his immediate family from prosecution. The GCC move marked a milestone in bringing peace and stability to a country which was torn apart by the protests against Saleh’s regime.
While Yemenis hoped the political transition would save the country from economic and humanitarian crisis, the battle for post-Saleh era began. Shortly after the newly-elected President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who won the uncontested poll on February 21, took office, loyalist troops led by Brig Gen Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh, son of the former leader, fought to bring back the old regime.
Clashes between the military supporters of Saleh and government forces continued to escalate in what many believed to be an attempt to hinder the peaceful transition and destabilise the security of Hadi’s regime. The situation got even worse after military attacks targeted the officials of the new regime. Fifteen people were killed as fighting broke out between security forces and Saleh loyalists, who occupied the interior ministry demanding that they be reinstated. The country’s Supreme Security Committee blamed the attack on “a group of inciters among the ranks of the police force aiming to undermine security.” Hadi’s government criticized those behind the attack of “seeking to spread chaos in a desperate attempt to undermine the political process in Yemen.” Opposition activists also blamed Yemen’s former president of inciting violence to hamper the transition led by Hadi.
As the chaos continues to grow in Yemen, US President Barack Obama issued an executive order against “those who threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen.” The order gave the US Treasury Department the power to freeze US-based assets of those who might interfere in the transition process. The European Union council also backed Hadi and his determination to implement the GCC power transfer agreement.
The interference of Saleh and his family and relatives is the main hindrance to stability in Yemen. After 33 years of Saleh’s authoritarian rule, the country was on the verge of failure. His long history of corruption, evident from the lack of even basic facilities in the country, his discriminatory politics, like appointment of close friends and relatives to senior positions in the military and security, established a crony state.
President Hadi’s agenda in his two-year term includes restructuring the military, conducting a national dialogue and drafting a new constitution, and restore peace to the conflict-hit nation to pave the way for elections in 2014.
Hadi’s first reform step was to restructure the military as it was filled with members of Saleh’s clan and loyalists. He vowed to end military dictatorship by removing all members of Saleh’s family and relatives from all leadership posts in the military and civil institutions. Special Adviser Jamar Benomar said Hadi wanted to bring the armed forces under a unified, professional leadership in the context of the rule of law.
On April 6, Hadi sacked two military chiefs and nearly 20 top officials close to his predecessor. The dismissal of Mohamed Saleh Al Ahmar, Saleh’s half-brother, who was the chief of the Air Force and General Tareg Mohamed Abdullah Saleh, Saleh’s nephew, who headed the presidential guard, was a major step. However, some members of Saleh’s clan remained in powerful positions; his son stayed as the head of the Republican Guard and his nephew, Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, is still the head of the Central Security Forces.
Yemen’s interim government is at a crucial stage, facing challenges from the old regime, the protesters and regional insurgencies. Unless Hadi fills the power vacuum, the former government will continue to interfere in the transition process. The untested leader must fulfill his promise to rid the security forces of ex-regime elements.
Another key problem is Al Qaeda. The international community fears that militants would gain strength exploiting the power vacuum, though Hadi has vowed to crack down on Al Qaeda and retake the militant-controlled south. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in the country continues unabated despite months of political stability and increase in aid flows. Yemen also continues to face long-term economic challenges, including declining water resources and a high population growth rate. Hadi needs to address these problems to help the country shake off the effects of the 2011 political crisis.
Yemen may be far from reaching its lofty goals as the political transition remains on shaky ground. But the country has an opportunity to move forward with meaningful reforms through the national dialogue slated for late next year. “The national dialogue will be an opportunity for all actors in Yemen to collectively establish a new social contract and achieve national reconciliation,” a UN spokesperson said in a statement. If the new regime fails to address the long-standing political challenges, the country risks further violence, fragmentation and instability.
The interim government has held together the fragile country from falling apart, with help from the international community and the Gulf countries. The political crisis will end if Saleh and his family support the GCC initiative by disengaging from politics or leave Yemen to make way for the new administration.
For his part, Hadi should be transparent in governance, especially while making changes in civilian and military positions. Time will tell whether Yemen is ready for real political reforms. For now, the international community and the GCC should support Hadi’s transitional government to avoid further casualties and for the country to recover from the 2011 uprising and bring development and stability.