Saturday, June 18, 2011

In Yemen, a vice president in the hot seat

By Sudarsan Raghavan, June 18, 2011

SANAA, Yemen — It was an awkward moment for Yemen’s acting head of state.

In a meeting on Monday, top opposition leaders referred to Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as Mr. President. A senior ruling party official, deeply loyal to embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, retorted that Hadi was only the vice president.

“I am the acting president according to the Constitution,” Hadi replied with a smile, trying to strike a middle ground, according to two senior officials who were at the meeting at Hadi’s house.

For 17 years, Hadi served in relative anonymity as Saleh’s vice president. Today, he is widely perceived as someone who might guide his strategic Middle Eastern nation through a peaceful transition period that would end Saleh’s nearly 33-year-long rule and usher in a new political era.

But the question on many minds is whether Hadi has the strength and will to take on Saleh’s allies, including his son and nephews, who have remained inside Yemen even as the president recuperates in neighboring Saudi Arabia from severe injuries from a June 3 attack on his presidential compound.

Saleh’s relatives continue to wield enormous influence in his absence. This week, security forces loyal to Saleh’s son and nephews were posted in front of Hadi’s residence, a sign that many interpreted as a warning to Hadi to not cross any red lines imposed by Saleh and his family.

“He is in the middle of the hammer and the bench,” said Sultan al-Atwani, a senior leader of Yemen’s traditional political opposition.

On the one hand, Hadi is now facing mounting pressure from Yemen’s various centers of power — from youth activists to traditional opposition parties to power tribal leaders — to formally assume presidential authority. On the other, Atwani said, “parts of the regime, the sons and nephews, do not see him as legitimate. They see him only as the vice president until the president comes back.”

Compared with other top Yemeni leaders, Hadi is relatively unknown to the United States and its allies. But in a nation deeply riven across political, tribal and geographical lines, American officials appear to regard Hadi as unifying figure who might appease all the various competing interest groups, assuring a smooth handover of power until new elections can be held.

And having spent much of his career in the military, including a stint as defense minister, Hadi could potentially provide a positive answer to the most pressing question being posed by the American government about Yemen’s future: Will Saleh’s successor be as committed to fighting Yemen’s emboldened Islamist militants and an ambitious al-Qaeda branch, which has targeted American soil?

U.S. officials say they are encouraged that Hadi is reaching out to the opposition. “We believe that there is no time to lose in moving on to the democratic future that Yemen deserves,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday, referring to Hadi’s efforts to promote a political dialogue.

Hadi’s office did not reply to repeated requests for an interview.

Source: The Washington Post

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