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Commentary The Pitfall of Choosing a President Who is Not Meant to Lead

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Ten years have passed since the transfer of power from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after 33 years, to his vice president, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who remained silently in the shadows for 18 years as Saleh’s vice president. Politically weak in his own right, tasked only with following protocol and far less charismatic than Saleh, Hadi’s rise and endurance have been a clear case of survival of the weakest.

Hadi was brought to power on February 12, 2012, in a referendum in which he was the only candidate. Despite the predetermined results, voter turnout was relatively high with 65 percent of registered voters casting ballots. The popular vote was not for Hadi as a candidate per se, but rather an attempt to resolve the dire situation facing the country.

Hadi’s presidency was intended to be brief and transitional, an effort to end the stifling political crisis that had affected livelihoods and the provision of services, which deteriorated during the 2011 uprising against then-President Saleh. Even though the public mood would turn to disappointment during the erratic performance of the president and his government, Hadi has endured.

The First Escape

Hadi was deputy chief of staff of the armed forces in South Yemen during the outbreak of civil war in 1986, allied with South Yemen’s then-president, Ali Nasser Mohammed. After their defeat in the internecine fighting, Mohammed escaped to Sana’a with thousands of loyalists, including Hadi.

Hadi remained in Sana’a without an active role until unification in 1990, when the president of South Yemen, Ali Salem al-Beidh, requested that Saleh force Ali Nassar Mohammed to leave Sana’a. He did, but his military officers and soldiers stayed.

A political crisis between northern and southern factions quickly followed unification, escalating into civil war in May 1994. In the conflict, Saleh relied on the support of southern military forces and leaders who had been defeated in 1986, including Hadi. During the short war, won by Saleh and the Sana’a government on July 7, 1994, Hadi was appointed defense minister. In October 1994, he was named vice president.

Hadi’s rise to the vice presidency represented two things. First, the bloody conflicts in the south, especially the 1986 civil war, had eliminated most of the region’s effective political and military leaders. This was compounded by the authoritarian grip of the ruling Socialist Party in South Yemen, which did not allow for new political figures to emerge. Thus, Hadi represented the weak remnants of southern elites, which was useful for a northern leadership pursuing national unification. Second, it was a common custom of Arab republics to appoint vice presidents who would not be a threat to the absolute power of the president. Hadi was the right man for the job.

The Search for a Weak President

Hadi was not well-known by the public and was not visibly involved in substantive decisions as vice president; he was, however, close to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a powerful military commander and currently Hadi’s vice president. During the popular uprisings in 2011, political elites found themselves at a deadlock when searching for solutions and alternatives to Saleh’s rule. These party, military and tribal leaders had been in control of Yemen since the end of the 1970s and found themselves facing the rise of various movements: an insurgency in the north; a peaceful separatist movement in the south; and the escalating peaceful popular protests of 2011. The involvement of youths led these movements to become more radical in their demands for change and in the dreams that they espoused, whether religious or civil. These movements were pitted against the aging group of elites who were desperately trying to find solutions in their outdated political toolbox.

The latter opted for their go-to solutions in times of crisis: fragile alliances, power balancing and settlements. This led to the drafting of the GCC Initiative, which reflected their limited political imagination, typical desire to circumvent the root causes of unrest and lack of true understanding of the severe threat to the country. Ultimately, they tasked 68-year-old President Hadi and 77-year-old Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa to save the country and complete the youth revolution.

Hadi was settled on as a consensus candidate in part because he was, constitutionally, second in line to the presidency. Saleh actually had leaned toward replacing Hadi with Ali Mujawar, an uninfluential Saleh loyalist and prime minister at the time. Hadi, along with the opposition Joint Meeting Parties, insisted on being included in the agreement as the replacement for Saleh, fearing Saleh could at any moment replace him as vice president. The second factor working in Hadi’s favor was his political weakness, which attracted opportunists.

Political figures including Ali Mohsen and Hameed al-Ahmar, a leading tribal sheikh aligned with Islah, were among Hadi’s supporters. Ali Mohsen, who had defected from the regime and announced his support for the 2011 revolution, also was a strong ally of the Islamist Islah party, the most organized bloc in the protests and the one most represented in the media. Similarly, Basindawa, who has had to publicly deny talk that he was beholden to Al-Ahmar, was perceived by members of opposition parties as weak and easily controlled, which made him an appealing choice for the transitional prime minister. Through these maneuvers, the Yemeni state faced its most dangerous period led by uninspiring figures while corruption and authoritarianism prevented the emergence of effective new leaders.

Filling Saleh’s Shoes

Those close to Hadi never hid the fact that he was one of Saleh’s biggest fans; Saleh’s assessment of people influenced Hadi greatly. His later appointments were usually limited to members of Saleh’s inner circle. Hadi attempted to emulate Saleh in other ways, remaining in power as long as possible and ruling alone. But whereas Saleh was extremely active, Hadi, who has numerous health issues, is known to be less so. Saleh had a vast network of relationships because of his social skills, while Hadi’s introverted nature lacks such charisma and presence. Saleh formed a system of rule that was suitable for and loyal to him over decades; Hadi became president of a polarized country, inheriting a precarious system left fragile by corruption, nepotism and accumulated injustices.

Ultimately, party leaders decided to reframe the transitional period as a set of tasks that required completion, rather than a particular period of time. This opened the door for an extension for the two-year transitional presidency, resulting in a situation reminiscent of Hadi’s predecessor, who had extended one term after another. Hadi then distanced himself from his partners in power, Islah and Ali Mohsen. Advisers surrounding him were either Houthi sympathizers or short-sighted, and, in a period where regional powers were extremely antagonistic toward the Islah-affiliated Muslim Brotherhood, Hadi turned a blind eye to Houthi military expansion. The Yemeni Air Force did not support army units loyal to Ali Mohsen fighting the Houthis in Amran governorate, which borders the capital, Sana’a, in 2014. Hadi then refused calls from military commanders to give orders to confront the Houthis and halt their march toward Sana’a, which ultimately fell with negligible military resistance.

The Second Escape

Sana’a was handed over as a part of a big gamble by Saleh and Hadi. On September 21, 2014, the morning the capital fell, political party leaders went to the presidential palace to sign an agreement with the Houthis. They handed over their mobile phones at the door, not knowing they would remain there an entire day, cut off from the world.

In the evening, the Houthis went to the palace and surprised those who had been isolated inside with the news they had taken control of the city. They signed the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, a plan Hadi had devised with the Houthis in an attempt to avert a broader war. The scene was humiliating and clearly exposed the fragility of Yemeni elites, who signed off on an agreement legitimizing the capital’s fall to the hands of a militia.

It was naïve to assume that the Houthis would adhere to a political agreement that was signed after the Yemeni military had been neutralized. The group did not have a popular support base or the political experience that would allow them to participate in elections; instead, the Houthis continued to impose their presence by force, actions that were rewarded with more concessions. They did not adhere to the security annex of the agreement, which included provisions for the withdrawal of their forces from Sana’a and other cities after the formation of a technocratic government. Their intransigence and armed expansion continued until a political crisis exploded once again in January 2015, when the Houthis abducted Hadi’s chief of staff, Ahmed Awadh bin Mubarak (now the Yemeni government’s foreign minister), under the pretext of preventing a new federal division of Yemen as laid out in the new draft constitution. His release was ultimately secured through tribal mediation.

In a turbulent meeting with Hadi on January 22, the Houthis imposed their conditions, which included appointing a vice president loyal to them. Rather than accept such humiliation, Hadi and Khaled Bahah, who succeeded Basindawa as prime minister in 2014, resigned, after which the Houthis put them under house arrest.

According to constitutional procedures, the parliament should have met to approve the president’s resignation and appoint then-parliament speaker, Yahya al-Rai’i, in his stead. This was the path sought by former President Saleh, whose party, the General People’s Congress, had a majority in parliament. The Houthis, however, rejected this course of action, announcing on February 6, 2015, that they would rule the country through a Supreme Revolutionary Committee under the leadership of Abdelmalek al-Houthi, chief of the Houthi movement.

At that moment, Hadi’s story appeared to have come to its end. But then, Hadi escaped to Aden on February 21, 2015, and retracted his resignation. It had never been approved by the parliament and, in accordance with the constitution, was declared invalid.

The Final Escape

The situation in Aden escalated militarily, reaching its height when the Houthis used the Yemeni Air Force to carry out airstrikes on Al-Ma’ashiq palace on March 19, 2015. Former President Saleh, whose forces were aligned with the Houthis in the march south toward Aden, called on Hadi to escape through Djibouti, a reference to how southern secessionists had fled during the 1994 civil war.

Hadi decided to escape for a third and final time, leaving Yemen. He traveled through Al-Mahra governorate and into Oman on March 25, 2015. There, the Omanis informed him that the Saudis insisted on hosting him. Despite Hadi’s reluctance, he ended up in Riyadh. The Saudi- and Emirati- led coalition intervention began a day later, March 26, 2015; Hadi stated later that the intervention had begun without his knowledge. Political elites and officials who have taken refuge in Saudi Arabia have rarely returned to Yemen, including the ruling family in the north in the 1960s and Socialist Party leaders after the 1994 civil war; Hadi has not returned to Yemen except for short visits to Aden, most recently in 2017.

Perpetuating the Hadi Syndrome at Yemen’s Expense

After 10 years as president, seven of which have been spent outside of Yemen, Hadi’s value as president is solely in the cover he provides for the continued implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216. Saudi Arabia secured passage of the resolution early in the war, which links legitimacy of the Yemeni government to Hadi and justifies the Saudi intervention as aiming to restore the legitimate authority to Sana’a. For Hadi, remaining president is dependent on the continuation of the war, which has benefited his sons who allegedly lead a vast network of corruption.

The political elites responsible for Hadi’s rise are the same elites at the forefront of the political scene now, and they do not seem to have learned from their errors. They have empowered some who rose from the youth movement but who are similarly opportunistic and share their limited political imagination. Without remorse or the desire to place the country’s interests first, generations of Yemenis will continue to suffer the cursed history of Yemeni politics.