A dangerous balancing act in Yemen

The country is struggling to form a government amid reports of UN sanctions against former president and Houthi leaders.

Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi will need to walk a careful line if he wants to remain in power [EPA]

Sanaa – In September, Yemenis were told it would be a matter of days – or weeks – before a new prime minister and government were appointed, restoring at least some stability after an extended period of volatility.

More than a month later, Yemen has a new prime minister, Khaled Bahah. But he is struggling to form a new government, and is in a race against time to save the career of the man who gave him the job, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

On September 21, a peace deal was signed by Yemen’s political establishment and Houthi fighters who just seized control of the capital. The Houthis conditioned ending their siege on the creation of a new government, to be partially approved by the Houthis. It took two attempts to find a prime minister with broad political support – another stipulation of the deal – but since being appointed in mid-October, Bahah has been unable to build consensus over the makeup of the new government, widening an already large political vacuum.

In a speech at a conference of tribal elders organised in late October, the Houthis laid down an ultimatum for the Yemeni president to form a government in 10 days, or, ominously, “the next meeting [would] be in the presidential palace”. It gave Hadi and Bahah an effective deadline of November 10 to put a government together.

But that job will not be made any easier amid anger within the General People’s Congress (GPC), Yemen’s historical ruling party and biggest parliamentary bloc, over reports that the UN Security Council is on the verge of announcing tough sanctions on their founder – leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hadi’s predecessor and greatest political rival. 

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Al Jazeera first reported the sanctions plan, which would also see leading Houthi commanders sanctioned, on October 21. The Reuters news agency reported two weeks later that the US had formally petitioned the UN Security Council to sanction Saleh and two Houthi military commanders, accusing Saleh and the Houthis of colluding in a coup attempt to overthrow Hadi. The council is likely to make an announcement on the move before the end of the week.

Many in Yemen believe that, if sanctions are announced, the GPC will boycott talks on the new government and could call for Hadi – the party’s secretary general, and an increasingly isolated figure – to step down.

“He has to go,” said a government official with close ties to the GPC, echoing similar sentiments expressed by senior GPC members about Hadi, who has long championed sanctions against Saleh.

Any attempt at sanctioning Saleh would “bring the GCC deal to an end” for the GPC, another well-connected source said, referring to the 2011 peace deal that ended elite infighting and set in motion what has been a troubled political transition process.

Bahah, made prime minister designate, will only assume full responsibilities when a new government has been formed. His selection came just a week after his predecessor, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, was forced to turn the job down less than 24 hours after his appointment in what was widely viewed as an embarrassing turnaround for Hadi, already in a weak political position after effectively ceding control of Sanaa to the Houthis in September.

Bin Mubarak is the president’s chief of staff and was forced to turn down the post when the GPC – Hadi’s own party – followed the Houthis’ lead in announcing that it did not endorse his selection.

Meanwhile, Bahah has struggled to form a new government in part because of wrangling over its makeup. The previous Yemeni government had a 50:50 split between the GPC and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of opposition groups that cooperated closely with Saleh and the GPC before a 2011 uprising.

Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, is the biggest bloc within the JMP, and party members believe the Houthis and the GPC are working to oust them from political life.

In late October, Bahah proposed a new formula for the distribution of seats that would have seen the Houthis and Hirak al-Janoubi, Yemen’s secessionist Southern Movement, given seats and the JMP and GPC given reduced shares.

There is no way Prime Minister Bahah will find 34 individuals not aligned to a political party and who can qualify as 'technocrats' with proper related experience. This is not a time where individuals are willing to risk their reputation on a dysfunctional, unpopular government.

by Fernando Carvajal, a Yemen expert

Both the JMP and the GPC rejected that offer, and the Houthis said they would not participate in the new cabinet, saying they would hand their shares over to the southerners while lobbying for a “technocratic” government made up of skilled officials rather than political appointees.

On November 2, Jamal Benomar, the UN envoy to Yemen, announced that he had brokered a deal between the different political factions that would see Bahah and Hadi select a new government on the basis of technical merit.

But even this will prove a tough task, says Fernando Carvajal, a US-based Yemen expert.

“There is no way Mr. Bahah will find 34 individuals not aligned to a political party and who can qualify as ‘technocrats’ with proper related experience,” he said. “This is not a time where individuals are willing to risk their reputation on a dysfunctional, unpopular government. “

If a government cannot be formed before the Security Council makes an announcement on the sanctions issue, or the November 10 deadline passes without a new cabinet in place, it is unclear what will happen. Rumours abound in the capital that plans are in place for Hadi’s ouster, with the president set to be replaced by a “ruling council” convened by the Houthis and the GPC.

“If Houthis declare a ruling council, it will alienate the JMP and directly challenge the international community by removing President Hadi,” Carvajal said, adding he did not think the group would take such a bold step.

“[The] Houthis cannot afford to void the GCC agreement on this matter; they must wait until the government officially announces a new path for the transition process that completely abandons the GCC accord,” Carvajal said. “Threats of sanctions would only harden Houthis and Saleh’s supporters in opposition to the international community.”

Sanctions would also lead to the marginalisation of Benomar, the UN envoy and a key player in Yemen’s transition, and of any country voting in favour – leaving the international community with little to no leverage over future decision-making in Yemen.

Similarly, Hadi will need to walk a careful line if he wants to remain in power, Carvajal said.

“President Hadi has lost nearly all of his legitimacy in the eyes of the people,” he noted. “He must negotiate a deal that returns a degree of confidence in the government and secures his constitutional powers through the remainder of the transition period. “

Source: Al Jazeera