Yemen’s President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s unprecedented display of leadership in announcing significant military restructuring, targeting the divided military apparatus under the control of the political elite, is of great significance. In an attempt to break a heavily armed and personalised political deadlock, Hadi is directly challenging the authority of the two most influential power brokers in the country, long-serving former president and stalwart of autocracy Ali Abdullah Saleh and dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
The military is at the heart of this conflict of elites. Indeed, to conflate the disparate and variously loyal armed forces under the unifying title of ‘the military’ is misleading. The institution is both factional and highly politicised, and this serves to lend Hadi’s decision such gravity. Certainly, it is a move that will affect the political balance in Yemen for several years to come.
The personal conflict of interests, in the middle of which President Hadi has found himself precariously caught, long predates last year’s uprising and has managed to stifle and overshadow it. Even after partial implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) power transition initiative, Saleh remains heavily involved in Yemeni politics. He still heads the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC); his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, has maintained command of the Republican Guards, a highly trained and well equipped family-run army which forms the strong arm of Saleh’s extensive influence.
Dissident General Ali Mohsen, who shares a history of animosity with his former partner Saleh, similarly relies on his First Armoured Division for much of his influence and clout. He defected from the regime, taking with him his military following, three days after the 18 March massacre, allegedly to defend protesters. Accused of stagnating the uprising by personalising the mass movement, Mohsen forms a second barrier towards successful transition.
By tackling the foundations of influence of these two extremely powerful men, Hadi has made a bold, if dangerous, decision. As long as Saleh and Mohsen retain their tight grip onYemen’s political sphere, no meaningful progress can be made. Short of somehow expelling both individuals and their extensive networks of loyalty from the entire political system, the most effective way to ensure real progress is by slowly whittling away their influence.
The GCC initiative, in its second phase, stipulated the need for military restructuring, and there are no two more eligible candidates for such a process than the personal armies of Saleh and Mohsen. By halving the number of brigades in each force, Hadi is drastically undermining the most significant challenges both to his own authority and to the implementation of the GCC initiative in one incisive manoeuvre. As young activist Ibrahim Mothana noted, Hadi’s decision to attack these foundations is “arguably the most important since he came to power… It shows strong will and determination.”
In his short time in office, President Hadi has, in the words of a recent International Crisis Group report, “focused on clipping the wings of Saleh loyalists and consolidating his authority over the Republican Guards”. His decision to strip major military force from both Saleh and Mohsen camps represents a much more significant step away from a personalised conflict of elites towards real reform.
There are serious risks involved with such an assault on Yemen’s predominant power brokers, however. Mohsen may have welcomed Hadi’s decision as “courageous” and “patriotic”, but the price for exerting such authority remains to be seen. Just recently, policemen loyal to Saleh stormed the Interior Ministry in Sana’a, allegedly due to discontent towards government corruption; at least 15 were killed in the resulting clashes.
Clearly, the situation in Sana’a and Yemen has been, and will remain, volatile. Whilst such an attack on Saleh and Mohsen’s structures of power may herald a period of greater instability and render Hadi’s own position rather more precarious, it is a step in the right direction. Addressing the root causes of deadlock in a corrupt political system and encouraging successful reform in Yemen requires military depoliticisation and political demilitarisation. Such steps are certainly difficult and dangerous, but bold decisions like Hadi’s bring the distant ideal just a little bit closer.