By Ibrahim Sharqieh, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ibrahim Sharqieh is a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, and adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. The views expressed are the author’s own.
In a dramatic move this week, Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi struck at some of the old regime centers of power that have persisted since the removal of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh’s influence has lived on through allies that retain command of key military and security units – in particular, his son Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Saleh, who heads the country’s Republican Guards, and his nephew Yehya Saleh, who leads the Central Security forces. But with a set of decrees reorganizing Yemen’s armed forces, Hadi moved to fold these units into a four-branch Yemeni army, with the president serving as commander-in-chief.
Hadi’s decrees aimed to end the low-intensity struggle that has ground on over the past year between Saleh’s allies and their rivals in the country’s political and military leadership. In so doing, however, Hadi has run the risk of destabilizing a country that the United States views as a front line on the war on al Qaeda. After all, Yemen is also adjacent to Saudi Arabia, and chaos in Yemen could disrupt oil supplies and upset world energy markets.
Still, these decrees were long overdue. Even after the removal of Saleh, Yemenis have continued to demonstrate in the streets, demanding a restructuring of the military and the removal of the former president’s relatives. By moving from a strategy of accommodation to one of confronting the former president and his allies, Hadi has created a political earthquake in the capital Sanaa that could, at least theoretically, bring to an end the power struggle that has divided Yemen.
The neutralization of the Saleh-aligned military leadership greatly enhances the chances of success for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative that negotiated Saleh’s exit and laid out a framework for a political settlement. The move should help to restore the Yemeni people’s faith in that settlement as they wait for their president to deliver on security issues as well as basic services. The unification of the Yemeni military should also create more promising conditions for the country’s ongoing National Dialogue; participants will now be able to make credible commitments to solving Yemen’s formidable challenges, ranging from the country’s Southern separatist movement to the Houthi rebellion in the North to the drafting of a new constitution. Last, the end of this paralyzing power struggle means that the country can finally pursue a much-needed development plan that has been handicapped by a lack of security.
With the stakes so high, there is no way Hadi can back down on his decrees. Such a concession would fatally undermine his ability to lead and, moreover, threaten the entire political settlement that has promised to bring the country together. President Hadi must be prepared to face down the powerful Saleh and his allies if they choose to defy the decrees. Saleh loyalists have a history of bucking presidential authority; previously, they refused to implement decrees that sacked former air force commander Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar and that ordered that long-range Scud missiles be transferred from the Revolutionary Guard to forces under the president’s command. This time, such moves cannot be allowed to stand.
For Hadi to stand against Saleh and his allies, however, he needs firm international support. Particularly important is the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United States, for whom former President Saleh was a close ally. With Saudi Arabia and America at the forefront, the international community must reaffirm its commitment to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2014, which called on all involved parties to sign and adhere to the GCC’s political settlement and transition plan. Moreover, the “Friends of Yemen” must move forward in delivering the $6 billion in assistance they have pledged to Yemen. A real political transition requires development and the delivery of basic services in addition to the restructuring of the military. Yemenis need to see Hadi and their transitional government delivering water, electricity, and jobs.
These events in Yemen should be understood as a challenge not just to Hadi, but also to the international community. In contrast with the disastrous divisions that have prevented action on Syria and prolonged the suffering of the Syrian people, on Yemen, the international community has an opportunity to mount a unified effort to promote reform and stability.
Hadi’s move has met with overwhelming support inside Yemen, whether from Sanaa’s youth protesters or from Ali Muhsen al-Ahmar, who has agreed to respect the decree and step down from his command. Hadi’s internal support raises the question, then, of whether he can expect similar backing from Yemen’s international partners. It now falls on the international community to show a commitment to a peaceful transition in Yemen, as well as provide crucial assistance on the country’s security and development needs.