The swearing-in of Yemen’s new President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi on Saturday topped headlines in the Arab world.
Millions of young people in various Arab capitals watched with a sparkle in their eyes, seeing that once again, regime change is doable and it doesn’t have to be via foreign occupation, like Iraq in 2003, or through a devastating North Atlantic Treaty Organization attack, as the case with Libya in 2011.
In Yemen’s case, it was achieved through the will and might of Yemeni youth, and through a political deal hammered out by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). That deal, as the world now knows only too well, has provided a new model for the Arab Spring, a workable one despite being neither as smooth as Tunisia nor as violent as Libya.
The win-win solution included granting outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh a dignified exit, immunity from persecution (along with his entire family) and the right to live and work in Yemen, with all the honors of a former president. The democratic change in Yemen will soon rip through the Arab world, empowering Arab youth who are aspiring for democratic change in Iraq, Algeria, Bahrain, and Syria.
Hadi now replaces his former boss, an autocrat with strong ties to the US, who has been around – running a corrupted oligarchy with an iron fist – since 1978. Never in his wildest dreams did Saleh imagine that one day he would no longer be the president of Yemen.
That is what plagued his three friends, Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidin Ben Ali, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.
All four of them sincerely believed that they were going to stay in power forever. Mubarak argued that his country was different from Tunisia, while Gaddafi said that Libya was different from both Egypt and Tunisia, since his people were living in a popular democracy.
Saleh, with little surprise, said the same thing about Yemen. Like the ex-president of Egypt and the late dictator of Libya, Saleh also toyed with the idea of bequeathing power to one of his sons, and when the revolt erupted against him one year ago, he resisted it forcefully, accusing the demonstrators of being outlaws, and agents of al-Qaeda – words ripped out of the dictionary of every single Arab dictatorship.
He then fought a losing battle against his own people for one year, but eventually accepted reality and stepped down, very unwillingly. While all of this was happening, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi was in the shadow, watching closely as Saleh’s iron grip over Yemen was rapidly slipping away.
At first glance, the new president of Yemen doesn’t seem too different from his predecessor, having spent the past 17 years of his life answering to the beck and call of Ali Abdullah Saleh, in his capacity as vice president of the republic. His critics argue that saw the corruption and turned a blind eye to it, or in some cases, was even party to it.
Others argue that Hadi has a thin moral fiber, for having witnessed so much wrongdoings and autocracy and not lifting a finger to stop it. Like Saleh, after all, he too is a decorated army officer who thinks that nations can be administered like an official army. A closer, look, however, tells a very different story. First, in his post as vice-president Hadi had purely ceremonial powers and commanded no real authority.
Yemeni politics took the shape of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and nobody else was allowed to decide on anything substantial during the Yemeni President’s 33-year old rule. Even if he wished to see political change happen, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi could not advance democracy or defect from Saleh’s entourage, fearing for his life and that of his family. He had no Yemeni blood on his hands, and was not involved in the crackdown that began in February 2011.
Born in May 1945 in a small village in southern Yemen, Hadi joined the South Yemeni Army in 1970 and received advanced military training in the UK, Egypt, and the USSR, where he studied for four years. He rose in rank steadily, becoming deputy chief-of-staff for supply in 1983, arranging all arms deals with the Soviet Union.
In October 1994, he was appointed vice president to Saleh, and held the job non-stop until replacing him as acting president in June 2011, when the Yemeni president went to Saudi Arabia to undergo medical treatment after an armed attack on his compound. He was voted officially into office on February 25, after winning a national referendum where he stood as the only candidate, winning 99.8% of the votes.
The figure speaks high drama, of course, because it looks anything but democratic, reminding Yemenis of the pathetic elections under Saleh, where he too won the elections with nearly all of the electoral. If we scratch beneath the surface, however, we can see that in Hadi’s case, it doesn’t mean that 99.8% of Yemen’s 24 million want him for president.
In a plebiscite, after all, only one candidate stands for office and usually, those who vote are supporters of this one candidate. In this case, those who voted for Hadi were actually voting against Ali Abdullah Saleh, rather than for the new president. Those who wanted Saleh to stay did not show up at the polls, simply because Saleh was not running for president anymore. It means that Hadi got 99.8% of the votes cast, not all of Yemen’s population.
Hours after Hadi took his oath, however, a car bomb exploded at one of the seven presidential palaces located in the southern town of Mukalla, more than 480 kilometers west of the capital Sana. The bomb, no doubt, looked and smelled like the dirty work of al-Qaeda. Most of the dead were soldiers in the Republican Guard.
The message, of course, was targeted at the new president, who vowed in his inaugural address to continue the war against al-Qaeda “as a religious and national duty”. Al-Qaeda was reminding him – and perhaps the world at large – that Yemen’s ills will not be cured overnight through the ousting of Saleh. Additionally, Hadi faces a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, a devastated and fractured military, and a tribal society that in many parts of the country, remains loyal to Saleh.
The story of Yemen’s new president reminds us of Egypt on the eve of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s death in 1970. While at the apex of his career, Nasser appointed his loyal protege Anwar al-Sadat as vice-president, believing that Sadat would always carry out orders with no questions asked.
When Nasser died in September 1970, heavyweights in the Egyptian state backed Sadat for president, arguing that he would be a weak and colorless leader who they would be able to play with at will because he lacked a strong personality, and a power base on the Egyptian Street. Pretty soon, however, Sadat matured into a political genius, bringing down his opponents, one by one, and rising to paramount leadership traits that he matched – and in some cases outdid – the legendary Nasser himself. In theory, nothing prevents Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi from writing Ali Abdullah Saleh into history, and becoming another Anwar al-Sadat.
This article appeared in Asia Times Online on March 1, 2012.