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The Sana’a Center Editorial: A Presidential Council: The Best of Bad Alternatives to Hadi

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Despite all the talk of regional proxy wars in Yemen, after more than six years of conflict the same two primary obstacles to peace remain: the armed Houthi movement and Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, president of the country’s internationally recognized government. The former, led by paranoid zealots, operates like an ideologically driven mafia in the areas it controls in the country’s north. For those who have lived under Houthi rule, the social control has been suffocating, with free thought and expression quashed and religious indoctrination imposed as the Houthis attempt to establish a totalitarian theocracy in their image. While these ambitions are unlikely to materialize in a durable form over the long run, just as unlikely is the idea that the Houthis will cease to be a factor in Yemen. If, and hopefully when, there is a nationwide agreement reached to end the ongoing conflict, as unpalatable as it will be for many Yemenis, there will have to be some sort of national reckoning with, and accomodation of, the Houthis in Yemen’s political future.

The same cannot be said for Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, president of the internationally recognized Yemeni government that would also have to sign on to any peace agreement to end the conflict. Hadi, whose mandate in office was meant to expire in 2014, will almost certainly be exiting power in any post-conflict arrangement, as neither the Houthis nor most parties in the anti-Houthi coalition would accept him remaining president.

Hadi is widely regarded as an inept statesman; he lacks domestic legitimacy, and his presidency is a siphon for corruption through which members of his inner circle have lavished wealth upon themselves. Indeed, his exit is so assured in any post-conflict arrangement that it is against his vested interests for the war to end. And other than pilfering, Hadi has primarily used his office to undermine rivals within the anti-Houthi coalition – in particular the Southern Transitional Council – fracturing the common front against the Houthis militarily and politically and contributing to the failure of basic state functions across areas the Yemeni government nominally controls.

In short, the Yemeni president is the rotten core of a failing government – as long as he is left to fester at the center of power, neither military progress against the Houthis nor headway toward peace will see sustainable gains, and even improvements in good governance will be only fleeting. For stakeholders in the Yemen conflict – in particular the foreign parties that have kept Hadi afloat – the immediate need should be clear: He must go (as this editorial column has previously argued). This then begs the question: What and how should come next?

A presidential council is not the optimal solution for Yemen; however, as a short-term, transitional measure it is the best possible option in the current circumstances. Holding a new election is impossible. Parliament is moribund and holds even less legitimacy than Hadi. The council’s mandate, however, should be limited: with purview over peace talks, foreign and defense policies and the appointment of top government positions such as the prime minister. Importantly, the council’s access to the state budget should be restricted, with the council’s role focused on oversight rather than implementation. The handling of day-to-day government functions and ministries would be handled by a cabinet of technocrats.

There are historical precedents for a presidential council in Yemen, and the Sana’a Center has examined the concept in depth in a recent paper. In sum: Saudi Arabia would have to be the principal backer of the transition, given that Riyadh is the only party with the leverage to compel Hadi to acquiesce. The process would have to be facilitated through the UN and given international legitimacy through a new UN Security Council resolution. Membership on the presidential council should be made up of the political power brokers from across Yemen and also include representation from prominent women, youth and civil society figures. The body’s voting process and regulations should be clear and the rights and responsibilities of each member made explicit.

This should be seen as a first step in a much-needed process of comprehensive governance reform, one that introduces transparency and inclusivity into major decisions of government. The details and context would come with implementation, and there are clearly potential pitfalls. Perhaps most obvious of these would be political deadlock on the council. Should that happen, however, given the separation between executive authority and basic government functions, the model aims to allow state ministries to continue providing services even as the parties bicker at the executive level.

Until elections are possible again, a presidential council is the best chance for a durable, interim executive body. Such a course of action may allow for enough stability for state institutions to resurrect their basic functions and serve the dire needs of Yemenis. Finally, a presidential council would also help prevent negotiations at any future peace talks from being held hostage to the corrupt self-interests of an elite clique.

This editorial appeared in: Wanted: A Peacemaker Who Can Deliver – The Yemen Review, May 2021

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The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.