Imagine, if you can, a worse job at this moment than serving as the president of Yemen. Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, with the United States’ backing, was elevated to the position in November 2011, the least bad choice to replace the man who had been his boss for the previous 17 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh’s resignation was a condition of the deal brokered by neighboring Gulf states that ended months of street fighting in the capital, Sana, as Yemen worked its way through its own Arab Awakening-inspired upheaval.
The word “upheaval” is used advisedly because it is difficult to call what happened in 2011 a revolution, given that so much of Yemen’s ruling elite stayed in power, and even the deposed Saleh was allowed to remain in country and to continue to engage in politics. This was both the genius, and the fatal flaw, of the agreement. Had it insisted on more wholesale change, key players likely would have refused to sign. But by permitting so much of the status quo ante to remain in place, it sowed the seeds for the discontent that has now blossomed into what is — for all practical purposes — a coup d’etat carried out by a well-armed and well-trained Zaydi Shiite militia, called the Houthis after the family that inspired the movement and provided its leadership.
Hadi and the rest of the Yemeni government has now resigned, although it is not yet clear if this is the last word in the matter. It may be his best shot at forcing the Houthis, who certainly aren’t going away, to stop forcing him to cede ground to their demands. Regardless of the outcome, it is vital for the United States and the rest of the West to understand how Hadi, and the nation he ostensibly leads, has come to this point — and where Yemen is headed.
Even before Hadi assumed the presidency of Yemen in 2011, the Houthis had begun to slowly extend their physical presence southward. Accusations that they were being aided and abetted by Iran grew louder and more difficult to ignore, especially after a large cache of Iranian weapons and explosives aboard a boat that had sailed from Bandar Abbas was seized in Yemeni waters in January 2013, almost certainly destined for the Houthis.
Hadi tried on multiple occasions to negotiate with Houthi leadership, but none of these efforts seemed to slow the relentless march of the group’s armed militia, known as Ansar Allah, toward Sana. Meanwhile, Hadi also had his hands full trying to manage the fractious tribes and political infighting of the poorest country in the Arab world, a feat that Saleh once described as “dancing on the heads of snakes.”
Of course, Saleh was a master politician, clever, ruthless, and with a loyal base of support throughout northern Yemen. Hadi is none of these things. He is, in fact, a career military man from Yemen’s south who had proven himself loyal to Saleh by supporting the president with his forces when socialist South Yemen revolted in 1994 against the national unification deal achieved only four years earlier with the republican North.
Hadi emerged from that conflict as defense minister and, shortly thereafter, vice president, where he labored quietly in the shadow of the flamboyant Saleh for nearly two decades, until the international community turned to him to manage the transition to a national unity government in November 2011. To a great extent, Hadi has remained a creature of the international community, with a very tenuous base of support within Yemen to rely on. This is a reflection of Hadi’s personality: Where Saleh was charismatic, Hadi is phlegmatic. Where Saleh was an exuberant extrovert, Hadi is introverted, private, seemingly uncomfortable in the spotlight, very much like the career military officer he was.
It is likely this background that has informed Hadi’s response to the takeover of the capital by armed Houthi militiamen in September, and the most recent assault on his legitimacy that included Houthi occupation of the Presidential Palace — and Hadi’s own residence. In each case, Hadi emerged with an agreement making substantial concessions to the Houthis, tactical retreats for all intents and purposes, which allowed him to remain in place as president — with virtually no power, of course — but avoiding complete surrender to hostile forces and the instability such a takeover would invite.
The Houthis also appeared amenable to this choreography. They were smart enough to resist the temptation to seize all the reins of power in Yemen — and thus take ownership of its myriad problems, and whatever blame ensues when they, too, prove incapable of solving them.
As it was, the Houthis were already in virtual control of the capital and large swaths of territory elsewhere. They occupied state-run media and key ministries, and their fighters served as the de facto security forces in the capital. Virtually unchallenged, they have been able to set the agenda for the government, one that suits their ambitions but which, to this day, remains remarkably opaque. While they offer plenty of high-minded rhetoric about wanting to end corruption and ensure agreed-upon reforms are carried out, their seizure of power by armed force from a legitimately installed authority has a deeply corrosive effect on the nation, and with each passing day, they reveal themselves to be more interested in setting the political and economic agenda rather than reforming it.
Hadi, meanwhile, ever the military tactician, backpedaled furiously, hoping perhaps, that if he stayed in play long enough, some friend, somewhere, will come to his rescue, and reinstate some measure of order and stability. It was never likely, Mr. President. No helicopters swooping in with special forces, US or otherwise. Plenty of words of support were supplied, but the international community proved too stumped as to how to fix what appears to be so terribly broken in Yemen.
Regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran wield the lion’s share of influence in Yemen at the moment, and they must use that influence to avoid a deeply fractured nation with alarming prospects of sectarian-tinged war. Washington needs to engage both Tehran and Riyadh and, to the extent possible, the Houthis themselves, despite the group’s less than encouraging slogan — “Death to America, Death to Israel” — and try to defuse this ticking bomb.
If President Hadi does in fact leave office, it will be because, backed up to the edge of the cliff, he simply didn’t have enough wiggle room left to offer any further concessions. He decided to invite the Houthis try their hand at running things.
Stephen Seche spent 35 years as a career foreign service officer and served as the US Ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. He currently works in the Washington, D.C., offices of Dentons, a global law firm.