SANAA, Yemen — The slew of decrees that Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued Wednesday evening were the most significant steps he’s taken toward reshaping the country’s military since he took office last year, and many here cast them as a historic move.
The restructuring of Yemen’s divided armed forces has numbered among Hadi’s key tasks since he assumed the presidency in February 2012 in accordance with an internationally backed agreement aimed at easing his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, out of power.
The street protests that spurred an end to Saleh’s rule also engendered a series of defections by key military leaders, splitting the army into fractious halves, pitting units led by relatives of the former president against ones led by powerful defectors such as Gen. Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, erstwhile regime strongman and head of the First Armored Division.
While most here have long seen a comprehensive military shake-up as a virtual necessity, many observers have voiced skepticism about Hadi’s ability to oversee such steps. Even if he’d risen to the position of commander in chief, many Yemenis argued, the balance of power was ultimately in others’ hands.
The culmination of more than a year of gradual steps, Wednesday’s decrees still seemed to take many Yemenis by surprise. Announced in rapid succession on state TV, the flurry of appointments and reassignments seemed to transform the shape of the military in a matter of minutes.
As the names of new commanders were announced, a months-old decision splitting Yemen into seven regional military commands –and placing them under a unified chain of command – gained teeth.
Saleh’s nephews Ammar and Tareq, once placed in key security posts, were ordered abroad, along with three other once-powerful military leaders, assigned as defense attaches to Yemeni embassies in Ethiopia and Germany.
Their units officially dissolved months ago, Ahmar and Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, long viewed as Yemen’s most powerful military leaders, were formally reassigned. Ahmed Ali Saleh was named the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Ahmar was named an adviser to the president.
A further decree announced that the headquarters of the First Armored Division – controversially located in the midst of a residential neighborhood in central Sanaa – would be transformed into a public park.
The decrees were widely celebrated; many Yemenis went as far as to cast them as having a healing effect.
“The decisions unifying the army have restructured us psychologically,” said Mohamed al Muqbili, a youth activist. “I feel like the storm that’s been stressing my brain has ended forever.”
Frequently dismissed as an empty suit owing to his unremarkable, 18-year tenure as Saleh’s deputy, Hadi’s dramatic moves spurred many once-skeptical Yemenis to celebrate. But the decrees are far from uncontroversial. Saleh’s relatives’ new appointments have elicited sharp criticism from many activists: Rather than gaining diplomatic immunity, they argue, such figures should be facing trial.
Others have argued that the changes ultimately empower Ahmar, leaving the deeply controversial figure in the country while his opponents are sent abroad. Even the former president is in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, though he’s nearly universally expected to return to Sanaa after a few months.
Analysts largely described Hadi’s decrees in positive terms, casting them as a logical move in the context of the steps he’s taken so far. However, rather than a grand culmination of the military restructuring, many stressed that the government still has a difficult process ahead of it.
“Politically, the decrees continue a trend of weakening the old regime – both the Saleh and Mohsen factions – and in doing so, open space for more fundamental reform,” said April Longley Alley, the senior Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization based in Brussels. “Looking ahead, it is important to note that these announcements are still focused on personnel shifts, which are necessary but only the beginning of the reform process. The hard work of implementing decrees and then going further to build a professional, national army under civilian control lies ahead.”
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron