6 months after Hadi took over Yemen, some voice optimism

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 29, 2012 

— When Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over the presidency of Yemen six months ago, there were few who expected his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, his longtime deputy, to bring about the revolutionary change that crowds of Yemenis had demanded during a year of street demonstrations. Hadi, after all, had come to power in an election in which he was the only candidate, with a reputation as a weak figure unlikely to make a decisive split from the former president and his powerful relatives.

Hadi has confounded many pessimists, however, appearing intent on charting his own course. Still, the legacy of his predecessor and the toll of the yearlong uprising that ended Saleh’s 33 years in power continue to cast a heavy shadow over the country.

During his two-year term, Hadi is expected to preside over a mountain of tasks, including restructuring the military, conducting a national dialogue and drafting a new constitution, all while restoring order to the conflict-wracked nation in order to pave the way for elections in 2014.

Benefiting, perhaps, from low expectations, Hadi generally has retained the cautious support of many Yemenis, who turned out in higher-than-expected numbers to participate in the referendum-like vote in which he was the candidate of both the ruling and opposition parties. Even many deeply skeptical opposition activists have said that Hadi’s wide-ranging, though gradual, efforts at reform pleasantly surprised them.

Analysts say Hadi’s moves so far show an intent to move away from the heavily centralized, often dysfunctional, governance of his predecessor. Tenuous progress in the battle against al Qaida-linked groups has allowed shell-shocked Yemenis to take heart at the return of comparative calm and the increasing regularity of government services.

“So much is unchanged, and the goals of the revolution have not been met.” said Hamza al Kamali, a youth activist who boycotted Hadi’s election, placing his guarded approval of the president’s actions in context. “But in terms of Hadi himself, so far, so good.”

Nevertheless, Yemen’s instability lingers.

The yearlong uprising against Saleh plunged the country into a severe humanitarian crisis, leaving millions of Yemenis struggling to afford to eat.

The prospects for the so-called dialogue between rival factions are hazy. The Houthis, a rebel group that controls much of Yemen’s far northwest, appear to have backed down from their initial refusal to participate. The factions of the Southern Movement, a fractious coalition that’s calling for a return to autonomy in Yemen’s formerly independent south, have sent divergent messages, and their ability to control their increasingly radicalized constituencies remains an open question.

The government’s control of much of the country remains shaky at best. A U.S.-backed military offensive saw the Yemeni military and local fighters push fighters from Ansar al Shariah, an al Qaida-linked militant group, out of territory they’d held for more than a year in Abyan province. But a string of deadly attacks has been blamed on al Qaida operatives, a sign that group remains resilient. Many Yemenis are aghast at the increasing frequency of terrorist attacks in their country’s urban centers.

Of all the issues Hadi faces, however, few attract as much attention or controversy as the process of military restructuring.

The reform of Yemen’s armed forces, which were dominated largely by Saleh’s relatives and tribal allies, was a key goal of anti-government demonstrators, and as defections split the military into fractious, occasionally warring halves, an overhaul was transformed from a revolutionary demand into a near-necessity.

Since he took office, Hadi has initiated what some government officials have characterized as an unprecedented string of military reforms with the goal of turning the factionalized armed forces into a coherently organized military under a unified chain of command. He’s replaced a number of Saleh’s relatives and loyalists, though those changes have left some factions angry. Earlier this month, disgruntled pro-Saleh troops laid siege to the Ministry of Defense in an apparent response to a presidential decree that decreased the manpower of the Republican Guard, an elite force led by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali.

Hadi has vowed to hold the soldiers involved accountable, but for many here, the attack served as a reminder of the fraught nature of Yemen’s transitional process and the sway that the former president, who still resides in the center of the capital, and his allies retain. Saleh’s continued influence has tempered optimism about Hadi’s ability to bring about change.

Saleh and his allies “still have the ability to make major problems for Hadi,” said one opposition politician, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The head has changed, but a lot of the body hasn’t.”

Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron

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