Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was in many ways an absolute ruler, exercising his authority in a manner that often exceeded his constitutional powers. In doing so he was following the traditional practice of governance since the era of the Imams, which the republic in effect inherited and adapted. Now the tables have turned and Yemen has moved from being ruled by a president with absolute powers to a figurehead who serves the interests of powerful external and internal forces.
Following Saleh’s removal from power in 2012 and the appointment of Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi as a consensual leader through the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, Yemen’s political elite expected Hadi to assume the role of a ruler with absolute powers, according to traditional practice. But Hadi’s weak personality meant he was unable to meet expectations at a critical juncture in Yemen’s history.
After the two-year transitional period of Hadi’s rule, during which he met with more foreign ambassadors than Yemenis, there began a new phase during which the president was stripped of his powers altogether following the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in September 2014. Houthi plans initially involved keeping Hadi in place as a cover for their power grab, a role Hadi accepted, even if it meant embarrassing himself before the public, such as when the Houthis publicly rejected his choice of prime minister in October 2014.
Their relations deteriorated in January 2015 when Hadi tried to pass a draft constitution enshrining a six-region federal system opposed by the Houthis. Though the draft wasn’t final, the Houthis reacted violently, kidnapping the director of Hadi’s office. The Presidential Protection Brigade, the largest army force in Sana’a at the time, collapsed in ensuing clashes.
After refusing to sign a decree appointing a Houthi-aligned vice president, Hadi fled to Aden in February 2015, then to Oman and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 26, and while Hadi remained president for more than seven additional years, he was powerless, providing no more than a cover of legitimacy for the coalition and its military operations in Yemen. When Hadi was ousted through Saudi fiat on a Ramadan night in April, nobody, including his closest circle, felt sorry for him.
Rashad al-Alimi, Hadi’s successor, was appointed chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), a body comprising seven other members that each represents a socio-political region or armed force. This is not the case for Alimi himself. The PLC chairman hails from a disputed territory, Taiz, and does have any armed force under his direct control. So although Alimi holds the keys to power on the PLC, he does not have the means on the ground to assert his authority.
It is perhaps difficult to compare the circumstances under which Hadi became president to those under which Alimi became head of the PLC. Hadi took office at a time when the president exercised absolute powers in people’s minds, and had control of state institutions, the army, and security agencies. He also enjoyed international and local support. Under Alimi, however, the powers of the president have been dissolved into a collective leadership council, a body fraught with division and lacking its own armed force on a par with the numerous militias in existence.
Most importantly, this council lacks the legitimacy that was Hadi’s only leverage vis-à-vis the Saudi-led coalition, enabling him on occasion to engage in political maneuvers. Since this council was engineered by the two leading states of the coalition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, keeping these countries pleased is essential for its members to keep their positions.
It wasn’t long before the muffled tensions between the PLC members began to surface, leading to the recent battle for control over the oil-rich Shabwa governorate between UAE-backed and Southern Transitional Council (STC)-aligned forces on the one hand and Islah-dominated army and security forces on the other. STC-aligned forces also control Aden, the interim capital where the PLC chairman and members are meant to reside. Word has it that the STC president Aiderous al-Zubaidi treats other PLC members as guests, but given that they are under the “protection” of his armed forces, hostages may be a more appropriate characterization.
In view of this, the PLC chairman faces two scenarios. One is that he functions as a figurehead leader, acting as a cover for the STC’s aim of extending its absolute authority over all of southern Yemen. This would be a similar situation to that of Hadi when he was in Sana’a at the mercy of Houthi militias. The outcome of this trajectory is already known. In less than four months, Hadi had to resign for fear of being removed or even assassinated.
The second possibility is for Alimi to impose authority and exercise his full powers as the chairman of the PLC. This is not an easy task and requires a great deal of patience, courage and political imagination, which may be lacking for someone who spent his entire career working as a technocrat in the shadows.
Alimi should be well aware that the PLC is an extension of the end of his predecessor’s era. Although Hadi rose to power through legitimate means and he enjoyed recognition at the international level, his national legitimacy gradually eroded until it became non-existent at the end of his rule. This was a natural outcome of Hadi’s preoccupation with international legitimacy and the fact that he spent seven years as president outside the country. But the authority he gained was no more than the gift of external powers, conditional upon serving their interests.
In view of the unprecedented exercise of government functions from abroad during the Hadi years, it is important for the PLC’s members to be present in Aden. But so far Alimi has spent most of his time visiting other countries, running the risk of repeating the fatal mistake of his predecessor. These long visits abroad give the impression that Alimi, like Hadi, is preoccupied with international recognition as his priority.
Alimi must earn legitimacy at the national level so that he has the authority needed for exercising his powers and avoids being a fig leaf for other players. This legitimacy can only be earned through fulfilling the minimum basic economic and service needs of the people. It is true that the council has been frustrated by the lack of any external financial support and the failure of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to fulfill their financial pledges. However, by rationalizing spending and using all sources of income available to the government, the council and its chairman have it in their power to improve conditions to some extent.
The disruption of state institutions in areas under the government’s control is a major problem that has led to the spread of more corruption and waste of the state’s limited resources. This disruption can be partly attributed to the lack of institutional structures caused by the over-centralization of the Saleh era. The fragmentation only worsened during the war through random appointments based on loyalty and nepotism and other forms of irresponsible governance.
Institutional work must be restored and unnecessary appointments must be stopped to reduce this wastage of resources and financial corruption plaguing a country reduced to dependence on foreign aid. Alimi must act as a leader and give priority to exercising his functions from Aden, the actual seat of the government. Rather than being seen primarily in the company of foreign leaders and officials, he should visit Yemeni governorates under the control of the government to get a closer look at local problems and build ties with Yemeni society.
If Alimi continues the practices of his predecessor and spends most of his time abroad relying on international recognition to remain in office, he should bear in mind that his fate could be even worse than simply becoming a powerless figurehead. His predecessor was forced out of his capital by the Houthis; if the STC eventually decides they no longer require Alimi’s cover, history could repeat itself.