Meddling by Ex-President Threatens Stability of Yemeni Government
Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh remains actively engaged in Yemeni politics, undermining the actions of President Abdurabu Mansour Hadi's transition government and, his critics allege, fomenting continued unrest in the country.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's continued influence over key figures in the government and military represents a point of critical instability in the transition process, complicated by his repeated assertion that the government is incapable of resolving Yemen's political crisis.
President Abdurabu Mansour Hadi's attempts to mediate with Saleh have thus far proven unsuccessful, with no indication that the former president is willing to allow the transition process to proceed without his interference. Saleh's truculent approach has led Hadi to threaten to dissolve and reform the transition government, throwing into question the continued participation of Saleh's supporters.
As long as Saleh remains actively engaged in Yemeni politics, the country's political transition will remain in jeopardy.
Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, right, hands over power to newly-
elected President Abdurabu Mansour Hadi,
Sanaa, Yemen, 27 February 2012
Ministers loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down last month as part of a transition agreement, walked out of a meeting of the Yemeni cabinet on Tuesday (20 March). All but two ministers of Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party left the meeting, in what unnamed sources close to President Abdurabu Mansour Hadi described as part of "attempts by Saleh to cause the failure of the consensus government." The walkout came just hours after senior government officials said Saleh had threatened to withdraw his supporters from the consensus cabinet formed in December 2011 with members of the parliamentary opposition. The truculent former president also threatened Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa with imprisonment if he continued to defy his orders, Yahya al-Arasi, Hadi's spokesman, told CNN. "Saleh has not yet realised that he is not president and such actions will turn the country into chaos," al-Arasi said.
Saleh returned to Yemen in mid-February, having travelled to the United States to seek medical treatment for injuries suffered in the June 2011 attack that saw him spend three months in Saudi Arabia convalescing. Despite hopes from his opponents in Yemen and the international community that he would stand aside and allow the fragile transition process to proceed without him, Saleh instead insisted on personally handing over power to Hadi, his erstwhile deputy, in a ceremony in the capital Sana'a on 27 February (see Yemen: 27 February 2012: New Yemeni President Inaugurated amid Continuing Violence). Since then, Saleh has established what critics have described as a parallel government—setting up an office in the grand mosque in Sana'a that bears his name to meet with loyalists and those tribal leaders who continue to support him.
The Gulf Co-Operation Council-brokered agreement that saw Saleh surrender power in exchange for legal immunity left most of the framework of his regime intact, and Saleh-loyalists continue to pervade Yemen's state institutions, the military, and the state security apparatus. The former president is believed to exert a significant level of influence and control over these figures, leading to persistent allegations from government officials that he is undermining the legitimacy and authority of the state. This interference does not seem to be limited to politicking and power games in the halls of power in Sana'a, with regular accusations from security and army personnel that officers loyal to Saleh are collaborating with the very militants that the new government has pledged to defeat.
In his first speech as president on 25 February, Hadi appealed for all Yemenis to co-operate with the new leadership to address the critical issues facing the country, not least the threat of the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) insurgency raging in the south. "If we don't deal with challenges practically, then chaos will reign," Hadi told the dignitaries assembled at his inauguration, an appeal likely aimed squarely at members of the former regime. This appeal appears to have been wilfully ignored by Saleh loyalists, as the escalating conflict with AQAP in the south continues to expose starkly competing agendas and divergent lines of command. This was ably highlighted by the events of 4 March, when a surprise assault by AQAP fighters on several army positions around Abyan's provincial capital Zinjibar left 180 soldiers dead and dozens captured (see Yemen: 5 March: Fierce Clashes Erupt Between Yemeni Army and Al-Qaeda in Southern Yemen). Senior officials at the main air force base in Sana'a told Associated Press (AP) that airforce commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, Saleh's half-brother, refused an order from defence minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed to send in helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
The attack came hours before Saleh-loyalist General Mahdi Maqola was due to be replaced as commander of the 31st Armoured Brigade, the main unit responsible for securing Abyan. Maqola had been widely accused of hindering supplies to forces fighting the militants, and unconfirmed accounts given to Associated Press by officers in the 31st Armoured suggested that during the week he remained in position after receiving notification of his pending dismissal, ammunition and weapons from a military storehouse in the region disappeared, apparently smuggled out and sold. The sequence of events has fuelled the irrepressible narrative among Saleh's opponents that the former-president is actively fomenting continued instability, aimed at undermining the interim government and proving to the international community that only he is capable of maintaining security in Yemen. Indeed, following the replacement of Maqola the campaign against AQAP in Abyan has gathered pace, with repeated airstrikes and raids conducted against militant positions after a period of relative military inactivity in the region.
Tensions between Saleh and his loyalists and the interim government under Hadi have increased in recent weeks as the President has made clear his commitment to introducing wide-ranging reforms to both Yemen’s political sphere, and its security framework, directly threatening Saleh's power. Supporters of the former president have couched this challenge in personal terms, with senior GPC officials telling CNN that Saleh "must be treated with respect." Despite the evident frustration among his aides, Hadi himself is maintaining a cautious approach towards his erstwhile leader, appointing a committee of leading politicians to mediate with Saleh and "convince [him] to abandon his threats," an official close to the president told Middle East Online. Should these efforts fail, and Saleh withdraws his supporters from the cabinet, the president will announce the formation of a new unity government, his spokesman al-Arasi said, throwing into question the continued participation of the GPC in the transition process.
On the frontline of the confrontation between Saleh and the new government is Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa. A veteran politician from Yemen's south, Baswinda served as a minister under Saleh, before leaving the GPC around ten years ago to serve as an independent MP. Baswinda has been vocal in criticising Saleh's continued interference in government affairs, and has staunchly asserted his political independence, leading the former president to directly threaten him with imprisonment if he did not start following his orders. There is little indication that Saleh will respond to Hadi's entreaties, with the former president having given a speech on 10 March in which he said "Our people will remain present in every institution...this weak government...won't be able to build a thing or put one brick on top of another."
Outlook and Implications
Upon his return to Yemen, Saleh vowed to remain involved in politics as an "opposition leader," however he has instead established a parallel regime that wields considerable power and actively works to undermine the legitimate government headed by Hadi. The new president is facing the huge challenge of restoring stability to Yemen while at the same time reforming the country's political and military institutions, which remain riven by conflicting interests and loyalties even without the direct involvement of Saleh. Hadi's approach to the problem of Saleh has thus far been timid, and supporters have called upon the president to directly challenge his former leader for control of the GPC, of which Hadi remains deputy chairman and secretary-general. There is widespread popular support among both civilians and the military for the reforms which Hadi's government is pushing for, as shown by his strong personal mandate won in the 21 February election, and widespread discontent and unrest by the lower ranks of the military against their Saleh-loyalist commanders. It is difficult to determine whether Hadi will use this strong position to impress upon Saleh that he is no longer in control, as his level of personal loyalty towards his former leader remains unknown. Nonetheless, the stability of the transition process will remain in jeopardy as long as Saleh remains actively engaged in Yemeni politics.
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