After months of reneged promises and prevarication, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has finally transferred his powers to his deputy and jetted off into exile, reportedly in Oman. He has left behind a state beset by countless challenges—political, economic, military, developmental—each sufficient to bring about Yemen’s collapse. Given Yemen’s strategic location at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the gateway between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, the stakes could hardly be higher.
The man charged with picking up the pieces is Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Al-Hadi. Al-Hadi’s promotion will become official with presidential elections on 21 February, in which he is the only candidate by consensus between Saleh’s General People’s Congress (of which Al-Hadi is a member) and the opposition bloc, Joint Meeting Parties. Although Saleh remains President until the elections—this face-saving condition of the transition agreement permits Saleh to complete his term rather than resign—the president’s powers are delegated to the vice-president, making Al-Hadi effectively Acting-President as well as President-Elect.
To put this delegation of powers into perspective, Al-Hadi is so close to Saleh that immediately on being made de facto Acting-President, Al-Hadi insisted Saleh remain on hand to act as advisor in the run up to the February poll. Al-Hadi is seen as a weak politician. Saleh handpicked him to serve as Vice President in 1994, following Yemen’s civil war, in a move most observers attributed to Saleh’s preference for a Southern incumbent. In Al-Hadi, Saleh found a loyalist from the southern region of Abyan who posed little political threat and gave his government the appearance of inclusivity.
During his eighteen years in office, Al-Hadi has caused very few political waves. While Saleh and his clan have dominated the political landscape, the Vice President has seemed satisfied to hover in the vicinity of power. Today the consensus opinion is that the “consensus candidate” chosen by the GCC and signatories to the deal, has again been selected for his lack of offence to the principle parties involved in the transition agreement. More an attribute than a virtue, will Al-Hadi’s relative lack of controversy be enough to navigate Yemen away from the growing storm?
Notwithstanding Al-Hadi’s meek political reputation, in a military context Al-Hadi’s personality is somewhat stronger. Born in 1945, by his mid-twenties he had graduated from the military academy in Aden, studied military tactics in Britain, and spent time in Egypt training with heavy artillery. His progression through the ranks was swift and as a young officer he was sent to the USSR for further studies and training. He spent four years in the care of the Soviet military machine and the experience stood him in good stead for his subsequent rise to rank of Field Marshal and the upper echelons of Yemen’s military.
It is unfair to label the man a weak character, or a politically malleable puppet, without first acknowledging his undoubted strengths. He did not seek, but has admirably accepted, his elevation and has succeeded in presenting himself as stable figurehead at a highly volatile moment in Yemen’s modern history. The fact that the GCC, US and European and Western powers have given him their support must be considered a powerful endorsement and puts him in a position of strength. Likewise, support from Yemen’s parliamentary opposition Joint Meeting Parties (a five-way alliance between nationalists, Islamists and socialists) gives him valuable political capital.
But there are groups who oppose him. Indeed, opposition to Al-Hadi’s candidacy chiefly comes from extra-parliamentary groups who demand more radical democratic reform and consider the political process initiated by the GCC as illegitimate, notably the activist youth movement.
Hadi’s many years in government and national profile—his principle strengths—are also his main weaknesses. He will find it difficult to disassociate himself from Saleh or shake suspicions that the spirit of Saleh lives on in him. To his credit, however, Al-Hadi has not strongly courted power. In the present turmoil, when a steady hand is required, Al-Hadi’s apparent lack of ambition might be valuable. He is a reluctant leader—unwilling to dominate proceedings but happy to be of service—and in important ways, this is a much needed quality in Yemen’s next president. Whether it is enough, is a different question. Yet probably the only thing Yemen needs less than another strong-man dictator is a political vacuum. On this point, all parties agree and this consideration, more than Al-Hadi’s accomplishments or abilities, have propelled him to the top office. Now that he’s there, he will be challenged to maintain cross-party support as well as draw disaffected groups into the transition process.