Yemen: A new leader’s balancing act

14 February 2012

Yemen’s incoming president will need to learn to deal with the country’s many rival factions

It is not without reason that Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh is noted for his wiliness. In a region noted for the longevity of its rulers, he has managed to balance his country’s complex and internecine tribal, military and political factions for almost 34 years.

It is unlikely then that the president plans to completely relinquish power after the presidential election is held on 21 February. Many critics of the poll say that he has already made sure that he will not have to. The sole candidate is his long-standing vice-president Abdrabbu Mansour al-Hadi.

Saleh’s decision in late November to sign the GCC-brokered deal effectively neutered two of his most important competitors, former ally General Ali Mohsen of the army’s mighty First Armoured division and Hamid al-Ahmar, a senior member of the country’s most powerful tribal family.

If he wants to have at least a modicum of independence, Al-Hadi will have to find a way to include Mohsen and Al-Ahmar in the political process, while maintaining good relations with Western leaders and GCC states that pushed for the transfer of power.

He will also have to deal with the Houthi movement, which wants more independence for the northern Sadaa province, and separatists in the south, who want to secede. He also will have to deal with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the country’s many tribal leaders.

Al-Hadi will have most luck with the southerners as he is from the south himself. But the Houthis appear to be coming around to the idea of participating in a new political system.

In the longer term, the new president will also have to restructure the country’s military by bringing its independent units, most of them led by Saleh family members and allies, under a unified command. Saleh’s son and heir apparent until 2011, Ali Ahmed Saleh, is the most likely to resist the restructuring.

All of these factions are likely to contest Yemen’s future and test the new leader.

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