Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has a good shot at re-election in 2015, but does he have a plan?

A few days after one of the worst terrorist attacks in their country’s history, Yemenis tuned in to the state broadcaster for reassurance from their president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Hadi appeared onscreen – in a framed photograph, mounted on the wall behind a spokesman who read out the president’s comments. Sharp-eyed viewers noticed that Hadi, in the picture, and his spokesman, in real life, were wearing identical outfits: a dark blue suit, a crisp white shirt and a thickly knotted silver-blue tie.

For many, the TV no-show summed up Hadi’s presidency to date. Nearly invisible in his previous role as vice president, Hadi has continued to shun the public eye since becoming president two years ago, preferring by and large to let others do the talking instead.

“Does he think we won’t notice he isn’t there?” a politician commented wryly, a few minutes into the broadcast.

Yet the taciturn southerner is currently seen as being the only viable candidate for the country’s next presidential election, likely to be held before the end of 2015. Two years after he became president, the question for Yemenis is what Hadi, given a renewed presidential mandate, would do with the opportunity.

More than a puppet

“I didn’t vote for him,” says Baraa Shiban, a youth activist who took part in the 2011 uprising that led to the ouster of Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, of the 2012 poll that he, along with many other activists, boycotted. As part of a 2011 peace deal between Yemen’s ruling party and formal opposition, Hadi was the only candidate. “I also encouraged other people not to vote for him, simply because he had been vice president for so long and he had done nothing.”

Yet Shiban later took part in the National Dialogue Conference, a 10-month-long series of peace talks that lay at the heart of the peace plan. Along with a series of decrees issued in 2012 and 2013 to restructure the military – which included the removal of Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali from the head of a powerful military unit, the Republican Guard – the talks, which concluded in January, are seen as the biggest accomplishments of the Hadi presidency to date.

“[Hadi] started to do some actions,” Shiban says of his gradual thaw towards the president. “Military decisions came. That gave us confidence in his ability to do something. He was able to convince people that he is not Saleh’s puppet.”

On January 21, Hadi pushed delegates at the conference to break a deadlock on key issues and bring the talks to an overdue close. When those in attendance finally agreed on a final few points, he launched into an impassioned speech that led to a spike in his popularity. “When we came to the final dialogue conference session and he ended it, that was a very strong move,” Shiban says.

Today, Shiban says that he would give serious thought to voting for Hadi. But, he adds, the president has made a number of promises that he has yet to live up to – namely, further military reappointments and a reshuffle of Yemen’s coalition government.

Other Yemenis worry that they know too little about Hadi, Yemen’s quiet president. (Coincidentally, “Hadi” means “quiet” in Arabic.) What, they ask, does he stand for, and what is his vision for Yemen’s future – if, that is, he has one?

The ‘Hadi doctrine’?

Conversations with members of Yemen’s transitional government, people close to Hadi, diplomats, politicians and youth activists like Shiban who have met with Yemen’s president suggest that that he does, in fact, have something approaching a strategy.

They also paint a picture of a quiet, thoughtful and methodical man whose military background informs his management style, and who struggles to deal with the interpersonal demands of a role defined by his famously charismatic predecessor.

Hadi first served as a military officer in British-run South Yemen in the 1960s, then under the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), and – after a 1986 split within the southern regime – in the armed forces of Saleh’s Yemen Arab Republic. Hadi trained with the British at Sandhurst, the Soviets in Moscow and the Egyptians in Cairo. He holds degrees in military science from the UK and the former USSR, and played an important part in integrating the thousands of southern troops who fled the south after the 1986 civil war into the Yemen Arab Republic’s armed services.

In 1994, four years after the socialist south and republican north merged, he helped the northern military put down a southern attempt at secession. Briefly appointed defence minister, Hadi was later handed the vice presidency – a role that, in public at least, was largely limited to exercises in cutting ribbons.

Military restructuring

Given his background, it is unsurprising that Hadi’s biggest achievement to date has been a series of moves to gradually restructure the military, removing a number of key Saleh allies including Ahmed Ali, whom he made ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in 2013. This move, say those who have worked with Hadi, is part of a wider strategy to gradually erode the power of the Saleh regime while decentralising government, so that the country cannot be monopolised by a single group or individual, as happened under Saleh.

One of the biggest decisions made at the dialogue conference, meanwhile, was an agreement that Yemen would shift to a federal model of government in the future – a move said to have been proposed and forcefully backed by Hadi.

“He believes, rightly or not, that the best way to proceed is to gradually strip power away from the former Saleh regime while decentralising and giving more power to people at a local level,” says a Western diplomat who asked to remain unnamed. “He thinks this is the best way to stop future fighting in the elite and ensure stability.”

Yet observers worry that the military restructuring, coupled with the dialogue conference, have created a dangerous volatility in Yemen. “Because of where the restructuring is right now, the military is weak; there is no security,” says a Yemeni analyst who asked not to be named. The analyst points to the December attack on Yemen’s defence ministry as evidence.

The analyst adds that recent fighting in the northern provinces of Saada and Amran, between Zaydi Shia militias called Houthis, Sunni Salafist fighters and northern tribesmen is an example of the extent to which Hadi is hamstrung by military weakness. A number of sources with knowledge of internal deliberations on the conflict say Hadi came to the conclusion that the military was simply not in a position to intervene. Similarly, he has been reluctant to commit military resources to put down a tribal uprising in the southeastern province of Hadramout, or to end fighting between a military unit based in another southern province, Al Dhale, and southern secessionists.

The fighting in the south is indicative of yet another issue: Hadi’s inability to pacify his fellow southerners. Since 2007, the Southern Movement has been agitating for secession from the north. Hadi’s attempts to get members of the movement to attend the dialogue conference were only partially successful, and in recent months the Southern Movement’s rhetoric has taken on a more militant tenor. As with many other issues, Hadi – methodical, deliberate, and reputedly loath to make a decision he cannot guarantee will be a total success – has simply not been able to formulate a meaningful response.

Still in Saleh’s shadow?

Hadi’s biggest problem, meanwhile, is Saleh, whose shadow looms large two years after he vacated the presidency.

The former president was highly adept at mediating conflicts – and at crushing dissent. Hadi, now stepping out of Saleh’s shadow, has neither the skill nor the capacity. “The main difference between the two is that Saleh could use people even when he was in a weak position or was in the wrong,” says Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni commentator who has met with the president. “Hadi doesn’t have that skill – not even when he has good intentions.”  

Hadi “is obsessed with Saleh”, says a person who has spoken with the president on a number of occasions. “He thinks he is behind everything that happens here, and thinks that if he can get rid of him life will be a lot easier.”

In 2012, Hadi reportedly asked the UN Security Council to issue sanctions against Saleh because he was “spoiling” the country’s political transition. Sanctions were not forthcoming at the time, but on February 26 the UN announced a new body focused on Yemen with the authority to sanction individuals seen as holding up or attempting to derail the process. It has been given two months to draw up a list. Saleh is likely to be the first candidate.

Yet the fact that Hadi went to the UN rather than confront Saleh publicly pointed to another weakness, Muslimi says. “He is too dependent on the international community, rather than local legitimacy, which is a sign that he has lost touch with the ground in Yemen.”

“If Hadi wants to be leader, he should confront Saleh, not ask foreign powers to punish him,” says a leading member of the General People’s Congress (GPC), Yemen’s ruling party, of which both Hadi and Saleh are members.

If Hadi is to be president again, this will ultimately be his biggest challenge: drawing a line under the Saleh presidency and selling his own.

This article was published on Aljazeera