Yemen’s former president has escaped house arrest and wants to take power back – but can he stem the worsening crisis in the country?
Over the weekend, Yemen’s political crisis took yet another dramatic turn. Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has been held by rebels under house arrest since he resigned from the presidency on 21 January, escaped Sana’a for Aden. In a statement issued Saturday evening, Hadi effectively reversed his resignation, accusing the Houthis – the Zaidi Shia-led rebel group that seized control of Sana’a in September 2014 – of carrying out a coup. On Sunday, Hadi met with a number of officials in Aden, seemingly in the capacity of Yemen’s president.
The timing of Hadi’s return to the scene has sent shockwaves throughout Yemen and the region. Hadi’s resignation was already a month old, his term – which had theoretically been extended until 21 February – was in limbo, and, according to public statements by United Nations Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar, a new political deal was in the process of being finalised. The Houthis control the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, as well as most of the country’s north, and the Houthi-allied Revolutionary Council – which has been the country’s primary executive body since the group and its allies unilaterally issued a “constitutional declaration” on 8 February – cast Hadi’s move as a destabilising act meant to serve “foreign powers”. On the other side, street protests in Yemen’s central cities of Taiz and Ibb backed Hadi as the country’s legitimate president, as did tribal bodies in the provinces of al-Jawf and Marib along with the leaders of many southern provinces. That said, many (if not most) Yemenis have reacted in a guarded way, making only tentative predictions that evidence both fear and uncertainty.
Little is clear about the details of how exactly Hadi made it to Aden, let alone how this move will end up affecting Yemen’s political scene. Former Prime Minister Khaled Bahah remains under house arrest in Sana’a, while many other key members of the resigned cabinet – most importantly, former Defence Minister Mahmoud al-Subayhi and former Minister of the Interior Jalal al-Rowaishan – have returned to their posts in open cooperation with the Houthis, who remain the main military power on the ground in the bulk of Yemen’s north. Backers of Hadi’s predecessor as president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, retain a large amount of power in the country. Their relations with the Houthis have grown increasingly tense, but even so, they are unlikely to welcome anything that looks like a return to power for Hadi. And while Hadi hails from the south, he is viewed with distrust by many factions of the secessionist Southern Movement, which aims to restore independence to the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), an independent country until 1994. This makes it unclear whether Hadi could maintain Aden as a temporary capital.
Whatever the extent to which Hadi’s great escape to Aden has changed Yemen’s political scene, the ultimate shape of the situation remains largely the same. It remains in the interest of all factions to reach a compromise solution, leading to some sort of power-sharing consensus government. But as time goes on, the societal fissures separating Yemenis are deepening, while the stagnant economy is coming closer to collapse. Many people warn that a violent conflagration is possible and that the ongoing humanitarian crisis could worsen. Yemen has shown impressive resilience throughout this continuing crisis. But even the most optimistic observers are growing more fearful that nation is nearing its breaking point.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.
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