Yemen's President Forms a New Government

16 MINS READNov 17, 2014 | 10:30 GMT
Yemen's President Forms a New Government
Yemeni security forces stand guard in front of a poster of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi during a pro-government demonstration Aug. 26.

The composition of Yemen's new technocratic reconciliation government reveals President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi's strategy for ruling the country. In crafting the new government, Hadi is attempting to play his rivals off one another by ensuring two things: that no one power center emerges as the country's predominant political or military force, and that each actor maintains a stake in preserving a certain level of internal stability. This strategy, which formed the cornerstone of the former regime's survival, will increasingly limit the central government's ability to extend authority into the country's hinterlands and pass much-needed political reform. However, it will also likely ensure the regime's survival and prevent the country from slipping into all-out civil war, at least for the time being.

The Saudis, who are easily the most important foreign actors in Yemen, have a strong interest in preserving this complex balance of power to avoid seeing a complete loss of central authority in Sanaa lead to violence or sectarian tension that could spill across Riyadh's southwestern border. The new Yemeni government faces a number of serious challenges ahead as the country's regional actors try to push Sanaa into making political concessions, both in Cabinet selections and during the difficult process of creating a new constitution. Despite this pressure, Hadi's attempts to balance his country's competing interests will forestall the disintegration of the Yemeni state for the foreseeable future, though underlying regional competition will continue to simmer.

On Nov. 7, Yemeni media outlets announced the list of preliminary candidates for Yemen's new government — officially a product of behind-the-scenes deliberations between Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah — which included individuals from across the country's diverse political spectrum. Two days later, Hadi presided over the swearing in of the country's second national reconciliation government, marking the end of a political system that has struggled to manage Yemen's regional power centers since the fall of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in early 2012. Unlike the previous reconciliation government — an initiative formed in November 2011 and backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council that attempted to evenly divide power between the former ruling party and an umbrella opposition platform — Yemen's new Cabinet features several emboldened and increasingly competitive regional movements.

Yemen's Looming Water Crisis

Conflict Areas in Yemen

In the weeks leading up to the Cabinet's formation, leaks in the Yemeni media reported that the new government's 36 ministerial positions were to be distributed based on a predetermined party quota system. Tensions quickly grew over these rumors, particularly among parties that feared that al-Houthis and Saleh supporters would dominate the new government. Frustrated by continued stalling in Hadi's inner circle, al-Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi gave Sanaa a 10-day ultimatum on Oct. 29 to announce the formation of a new government. (Al-Houthi's militiamen currently occupy most of northern and central Yemen, and his rapid military campaign appears to have received direct support from military brigades loyal to Saleh.) Two days later, an agreement brokered by U.N. Special Adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar and reportedly signed by all of Yemen's political actors introduced an entirely different ministerial selection process, dispelling the concerns of many for the time being. The agreement authorized Hadi and Bahah to nominate candidates for a technocratic government, in which individuals would theoretically be selected for their skill and aptitude rather than their party affiliations. 

The new list of ministers shows that both Hadi and Bahah tried to strike a careful balance in their selections. The two leaders distributed positions not only to traditional power centers such as the General People's Congress and Islah, but also to newly emboldened regional actors such as the Southern Movement and the al-Houthis. A number of spots have also been reserved for Yemen's scattering of socialist, Nasserist and Salafist parties. In addition, 18 of the posts were given to individuals classified as independents, while only seven of 36 appointed have previously held ministerial posts. Finally, some 40 percent of all new ministers hail from the south. While the carefully crafted government certainly creates the potential for the disagreement and competition that are inevitable in such a broad restructuring, it also leaves room for compromise.

Preventing Saleh's Return

The Cabinet's formation is an opportunity for Hadi and his inner circle to carefully undermine the growing influence of Saleh, Hadi's longtime rival within the ruling General People's Congress. Saleh's behind-the-scenes involvement in assisting al-Houthi military expansion — though officially unconfirmed — has been acknowledged by Stratfor's sources in the region. His involvement is likely an attempt by the former president to undermine Hadi's legitimacy while paving the way for his own political return. Hadi's restructuring of key Cabinet positions, particularly in the security ministries, is at least partially meant to check Saleh's influence in the future government and limit his interference in Yemen's evolving security situation. 

The most important change resulting from the restructuring was Hadi's removal of Maj. Gen. Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, a stalwart Saleh ally in the General People's Congress who has served as the country's defense minister since 2006. Ahmed is known to have issued direct orders to his subordinate brigade commanders on numerous occasions to step aside and even assist the al-Houthis as they moved to occupy population centers across northern Yemen. Hadi replaced Ahmed with his most trusted general, Mahmoud Ahmed Salem al-Subaihy, who is a southerner like Hadi and well-loved by the people. Al-Subaihy has received much acclaim for his command of the military's ongoing offensive in the south against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Ansar al-Sharia. 

Hadi has also moved quickly (though not without resistance) to install his brother, Nasser Mansour Hadi, as Yemen's intelligence chief within the powerful Political Security Organization, a position previously held by a Saleh loyalist. In addition, Hadi appointed Abdullah Mohammed al-Saydi, a former envoy to the United Nations known for his strong anti-Saleh views, as foreign minister. Finally, Hadi has maintained his allies within the ministries of agriculture and finance, key bodies for a country in dire economic straits and where agriculture is the sole source of income for a vast majority of the population.

Nevertheless, Hadi understands the dangers of completely sidelining a powerful adversary like Saleh, especially one that still commands a good deal of authority within the security apparatus. For this reason, Hadi promoted Jalal Ali al-Rawishan, a staff brigadier general with close ties to the Saleh family, to head the Interior Ministry. He also appointed Saleh supporters to the ministries of tourism, civil service, Shura Council affairs and water and environment, the latter of which carries weight because of Yemen's rapidly shrinking water supplies. Several other General People's Congress members were appointed to ministry positions as well, but whether they are more loyal to Hadi or Saleh remains unclear.

Despite these concessions, Saleh has been extremely critical of the new Cabinet selections. His political bloc within the General People's Congress has called for all affiliated individuals to withdraw from their designated posts, arguing that Hadi failed to consult with the General People's Congress leadership before allocating ministerial shares. But only two of Saleh's allies have rejected their posts so far. It remains to be seen whether more will join Saleh's boycott, or if those who withdraw will eventually return to the government.

Saleh has continued to launch political attacks against Hadi. Leveraging his institutional authority as chairman of the General People's Congress, Saleh dismissed Hadi from his largely symbolic position of the party's second-in-command the day after the Cabinet announcement, accusing Hadi of playing a leading role in recent U.S. sanctions against Saleh and two al-Houthi leaders. That same day, the former president rallied thousands of his supporters in Sanaa to demonstrate against the imposed sanctions, all while vocally attacking Hadi's leadership and the proposed government. More recently, Saleh's supporters in the General People's Congress have repeatedly threatened to reject a vote of confidence on the new government when it reaches parliament, in which the party holds an overwhelming majority, in 30 days.

Saleh's return to Yemen's political scene is undeniable, and the level of his involvement could determine the sustainability of the new government. Saleh will leverage his abilities to assemble mass demonstrations in Sanaa and control a parliamentary majority to pressure Hadi into returning certain political appointments to his control. Hadi will be hard-pressed to resist, especially given the importance of achieving parliamentary approval for his Cabinet, and he will likely be forced to either reverse some of his more controversial appointments or grant Saleh's inner circle access to other important ministries. But Saleh is unlikely to pass up a second chance to return to a position of political power — an opportunity much attributed to the al-Houthi re-emergence — and so he may be more willing to bargain in the end.

Hadi Reaches Out

The al-Houthis, for all of their recent military success, have emerged from the political restructuring holding relatively minor posts. Their exact representation in the new government remains unclear, although the loyalties and affiliations of a number of independent northern ministers are thus far uncertain. But the group appears to be content with having a minimal official presence in the new Cabinet. As rumors began to emerge over the past few weeks alleging that the al-Houthis would be granted up to six ministries — most notably the Oil and Minerals Ministry — a number of al-Houthi spokesmen refuted these reports, announcing that the Zaidi revolution "was aimed at overthrowing the corrupt government, not replacing it." The al-Houthi movement's leader assured his supporters that the group would "not take part in the government."

Abdul-Malik is focused on portraying his movement as a legitimate political and security actor while dispelling notions that the al-Houthis are conquerors seeking to seize control of the state apparatus. As Stratfor has indicated before, the al-Houthis are hesitant to establish themselves as the public face of the ruling government, in part to preserve their public image and avoid blame for any lackluster government performance in the inevitably chaotic political transition. As the self-proclaimed guardians of the revolution, the al-Houthis will leverage their security capabilities and the threat of further military expansion, rather than any formal political presence, to achieve their ultimate political goals, at least for the time being. 

On Nov. 8, the al-Houthis rejected the new government's makeup, threatening a boycott of their own. Al-Houthi spokesmen voiced concerns similar to those of Saleh's bloc, arguing that Hadi had appointed controversial figures (many of whom the al-Houthi leadership reportedly had rejected during prior negotiations) without consulting the broader political community. Contrary to Saleh's outright rejection of the Cabinet as a whole, however, the al-Houthis have directed their criticism narrowly, rejecting the appointment of a few individuals, particularly those who have served in previous governments. The al-Houthis appear particularly keen to replace the ministers of electricity and technical education, both of whom have served previous terms in the government and are affiliated with the Zaidi community's main northern rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah party.

The Sectarian Divide in Northern Yemen

The Sectarian Divide in Northern Yemen

Just days after the announcement of the new Cabinet, al-Houthi militias forcibly took over an army training base in the oil-rich province of Marib and clashed with security guards at Sanaa International Airport. Both events were likely timed to send a strong public message to Hadi. These sorts of military maneuvers, along with continued security campaigns in central Yemeni provinces such as Bayda and Ibb, can be expected as long as Hadi resists al-Houthi demands. But despite their public rhetoric and provocative military actions, the al-Houthis have shown that they are committed to working with the new government as long as the new Cabinet is not hostile to al-Houthi interests and Islah remains politically marginalized. In fact, although the al-Houthi's newly appointed adviser to Hadi, Saleh al-Samad, expressed reservations over some of selections for ministerial positions, he announced his full endorsement of the newly formed government on Nov. 13. The al-Houthis are content without a notable presence in the new Cabinet, though they will likely look to secure powerful deputy ministerial positions to ensure some influence over state affairs, and they will continue to leverage their military capabilities to make certain that the interests of the northern Zaidi community are met.

Islah, which has suffered the most in the face of the Zaidi resurgence in northern Yemen in terms of resources, territory and public support, is also poised to play an important role in the upcoming government. While the Islah leadership originally threatened to withdraw from any government that violated the post-Saleh political structure, its relative media silence over the past few weeks seems to signal that the party's leaders have begrudgingly accepted their declining fortunes. Nevertheless, the group has secured and retained many influential positions, including the ministries of electricity, technical education and industry and trade. Islah likely sees its inclusion in the new government as a useful way to maintain some of its former influence, potentially recover lost prestige and benefit from state patronage networks and largesse. If nothing else, the party's inclusion offers it much-needed space to regroup and politically counter al-Houthi encroachment on state policies.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new Cabinet selection has been Hadi's outreach to southerners, highlighted by the fact that some 40 percent of newly appointed minsters hail from Yemen's southern regions. If the current government formation stands, southern political leaders will be in control of a vast array of ministries, many of which focus on development and law — a crucial concession given that southerners have long complained of a lack of state infrastructure and of persecution under the judiciary. Hadi even appointed Khaled Omar Bajunaid to the Justice Ministry; as the former attorney general of the former Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), Bajunaid sentenced Hadi to death in absentia in 1987 for treason. The southerners have also retained control of the Oil and Minerals Ministry, an important position that they have kept through a number of Cabinet reshuffles that remains critical because of southerners' long-standing grievances regarding their lack of access to state oil revenue. It is important to note however, that any links between these southern figures and Yemen's more radical Southern Movement are so far unclear, and unlikely to be strong. Most of these southerners ran as independents, and none stand out as prominent secessionist leaders. Nevertheless, it is certainly notable that the government is trying to reach out to southern officials, especially as Southern Movement activists increase the tempo and size of their pro-autonomy and pro-secession demonstrations in cities such as Aden.

Saudi Arabia's Interest in Yemeni Politics

Riyadh has been watching the escalating conflict along its southwestern border with growing apprehension. Saudi leaders are unnerved by the rise of a powerful Shiite militia rumored to be armed and financed by Iran, the rapid erosion of Sanaa's governing capability and the notable uptick in activity by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, especially as the surrounding region deals with the growing threat of the Islamic State's expansion. The formation of a new reconciliation government that prevents Yemen from sliding into a potentially uncontrollable civil war — no matter how fragile it makes the government in Sanaa — will likely be viewed positively by Riyadh. From the Saudis' standpoint, a Yemeni state dealing with greater political competition is not only tolerable but also far more palatable than the risk of instability spreading across the Saudi border if violence continues to escalate. The resolution of ongoing political and security tension would also allow the shattered and demoralized Yemeni army to regroup and more effectively confront local jihadists to keep Islamist militancy from expanding northward. Yemen will have an even greater chance of achieving this goal if the al-Houthis integrate their well-trained fighters into the state security apparatus, as they have been recently demanding. Unsurprisingly, the Saudis welcomed the announcement of Yemen's Cabinet, giving the fledgling government their endorsement.

From a geopolitical standpoint, Riyadh has long preferred to keep its southwestern neighbor divided since Yemen's population is second in size only to Saudi Arabia's in the Peninsula, and even then just barely. Riyadh has thus historically viewed Sanaa as a potential threat and has traditionally held a strategy of building up competing tribal relationships in Yemen and, when necessary, playing competing factions off one another to keep Sanaa contained in its own chaos. A weak and divided Yemeni state is inherently dependent on its far more powerful and wealthy northern neighbor, giving Riyadh greater influence over decision-makers in Sanaa. Nevertheless, there are limits to how far Riyadh can encourage these divisions without risking a dangerous destabilization, so it will play its cards carefully as the current political process proceeds. And while the Kingdom undoubtedly has lost a great deal of its influence and patronage networks in Yemen since Saleh's fall (a dilemma frequently confirmed by Stratfor's sources in the region), it still retains by far the most influence of any foreign actor in Yemen, largely because of the financial assistance it has given to the cash-strapped Sanaa as well as tribal and political forces eager to court a wealthy patron. Riyadh will leverage these ties to pressure Yemen's various political actors to come to the negotiating table and compromise where necessary.

The Prospects for Success

Saleh has famously likened ruling modern Yemen to "dancing on the head of snakes," an analogy meant to justify his often contradictory and paradoxical policies as the only means of maintaining some semblance of central authority in an inherently divided country. Despite Hadi's best efforts to publicly distance himself from his predecessor's legacy, he has likely entered an even more precarious and dangerous dance. The situation Hadi finds himself in can at least partly be blamed on his own inability to adapt to and adopt Saleh's fine-tuned system of dividing and conquering. But the re-emergence of northern Yemen's Zaidi community has also triggered a rapidly escalating series of events that has led to a precarious system in which the country's political and security environments challenge the ruling General People's Congress and Islah. Hadi must now balance the competing demands not only of rising regional movements that previously held little weight in Sanaa, but also those of Yemen's traditional political elites who are seeing their interests challenged by upstart actors emerging from the country's hinterlands. This task will be made all the more difficult by the fact that the president's own political support base is deteriorating. Hadi's strategically crafted reconciliation government signals that he understands the need to rebalance the country's political, economic and military systems, but he will face strong opposition from all sides in pursuing this end.

Given the strong criticism from Saleh's faction and, to a lesser extent, the al-Houthis, it is unlikely that the future government will resemble the one sworn in Nov. 9. The threat of a parliamentary vote of no confidence by Saleh's bloc is particularly ominous and will be a key concern for Hadi in the future, although it remains to be seen whether the General People's Congress would be able to rally the required 151 parliamentary members needed to pass a vote of no confidence. (The party holds 238 of 301 seats in the Yemeni parliament, but it is split between Saleh's hard-line supporters and a smaller but more moderate faction that has been generally supportive of Hadi.) In the meantime, each political faction will make use of its existing leverage to pressure Hadi into making personnel changes. The al-Houthis will continue to expand their security presence throughout northern and central Yemen, Saleh will continue to rally his supporters to demonstrate in Sanaa and block reforms with his bloc's majority in parliament, and the Southern Movement will continue its secessionist rallies and provocative warnings against northern interference. 

It is unlikely that substantial revisions will be made beyond personnel changes toward reshaping the new Cabinet's balance of power, since Hadi will be cautious of tipping the balance of power too far toward any one side. After what may prove to be weeks if not months of delays and drawn out negotiations, the new government will begin tackling much-needed political reform, although it will be fragile and will be constantly pulled in multiple directions. Hadi's ability to manage these competing interests will be critical, especially as Sanaa moves toward the enormous and lengthy challenge of forming a new constitution and holding new elections by the ambitious date of Spring 2015.

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