After Years In Shadows, Yemen's VP To Run Country

Published February 20, 2012 7:45PM (EST)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — The man set to become Yemen's president is a soft-spoken technocrat who has good relations with the West and has avoided the limelight during his 18 years of loyal service to the outgoing autocrat.

The U.S. has backed Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in hopes he can and will help fight the country's active al-Qaida branch. Many Yemenis support him too, considering him the best man to replace President Ali Abdullah Saleh and shepherd the Arab world's poorest country out of the year-old anti-government uprising that has battered the nation and left hundreds dead.

Hadi is to be rubber-stamped as Yemen's new leader Tuesday in a vote that can hardly be called an election. He is the only candidate, and even those who go to the polls can't vote against him.

Yemen has one of the world's most active al-Qaida branches and the U.S. has remained heavily involved in the leadership transition, fearing chaos and the collapse of military cooperation in the fight against the terror network. The U.S. gave Yemen's election commission more than $2 million for the vote, and President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, flew to Yemen over the weekend to meet with Hadi.

"I am very encouraged by his comments. He is committed as well to destroying al-Qaida and I consider him a strong partner against terrorism," Brennan said Sunday.

One newspaper ran Hadi's photo on its front page Monday under a headline: "The President Tomorrow." Even Obama sent him a letter this week, voicing his support.

While highly respected by most Yemenis, few have any idea how Hadi — who has not appeared in public and given only one televised speech in recent months — will tackle the huge problems Yemen faces. Many just want Saleh to go.

"We want to finish with the stage we are going through now," said driver Mohammed Abdul-Khaliq, 25, who had pasted posters of Hadi on the doors of his taxi. "Saleh is finished."

The two men could hardly be more different. During his 33-year rule, Saleh dominated Yemeni politics, giving fierce speeches, exploiting tribal loyalties and using the threat of Islamic militancy to win support from the West.

Hadi has remained behind the scenes, maintaining good relations with Saleh's enemies and avoiding the corruption accusation that have mired other officials.

"He's not very flashy, he's not very well known, but he is considered a straight-shooter," said Les Campbell, Middle East and North Africa director for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, who has met with Hadi many times, most recently in December, 2011. He said low-key approach could be a benefit after decades of Saleh's bombast.

"Yemen had a very charismatic politician, so maybe it needs a period of time with someone who is in the background," he said.

Hadi, now 66, served in the military of South Yemen, then an independent nation, before defecting to the north in 1986 after a civil war. The two countries united into the modern state in 1990, and Saleh made Hadi defense minister, then vice president, in 1994.

Under Saleh, his role appeared small, as reflected in diplomatic memos released by Wikileaks. One 2009 cable said he had "little influence with the president with regards to decision-making" and was expected to "take orders from him and implement his decisions."

This track record gives little indication of how he will govern.

"Vice President Hadi is a blank slate precisely because President Saleh wanted it that way. His role was to stay in the shadows," said Yemen researcher Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch, who is in Yemen for the vote. "All of Yemen is waiting to see if he has what it takes to implement desperately needed reforms and move the country forward."

Many worry that Saleh will remain a power broker in Yemen through relatives and allies he put in key state positions. Two of his sons run elite security forces, and his nephew heads the air force.

It remains unclear if Hadi will be able to challenge those who benefited from Saleh's rule.

Tuesday's vote will make Saleh the fourth Arab ruler to lose power in the Arab Spring uprisings. To the chagrin of many protesters, he will likely remain in Yemen, where nothing bars him from political activity.

Yemenis first took to the streets to call for Saleh's ouster in January, 2011, inspired by the uprisings that toppled presidents in Tunisia and Egypt.

Since then, protesters have camped out in public squares and marched in huge numbers, despite crackdowns by Saleh's security forces that have killed more than 200 protesters. Hundreds more have died in armed clashes between armed groups and security forces.

Yemen's government has long struggled to extend its authority outside the capital, and faces a Shiite insurrection in the north and a separatist movement in the south in addition to the al-Qaida problem.

Security deteriorated during the uprising, and al-Qaida exploited the vacuum to seize territory.

In June, a bomb blast in Saleh's palace mosque badly wounded the defiant leader, who spent nearly four months in treatment in Saudi Arabia.

After a surprise return to Yemen and under intense diplomatic pressure, he signed a deal brokered by Yemen's powerful Arab Gulf neighbors in November to pass power to Hadi in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Under the deal, Tuesday's vote is supposed to start a transitional period during which Yemen will draft a new constitution, reform its security services and elect a new parliament and president.

Saleh is now in the U.S. for further medical treatment. He is expected to return to Yemen after the vote.

Despite the lack of suspense, the vote has transformed the capital Sanaa. Once-universal pictures of Saleh have been replaced by photos of Hadi, and posters urging Yemen's to vote wallpaper the city.

"Together, we build a new Yemen," some say. Others show a white dove dropping a ballot into a box.

The vote has split the youth activists who led the protests. While some say it falls short of their aspirations for "the revolution," most support Hadi — if only as a means to boot Saleh.

"We support the presidential elections because toppling Saleh is one of the revolution's goals and we will support Hadi," said protest leader and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman.

Still, many activists have vowed to continued their sit-in to press for trials for Saleh for his alleged role in killing protesters.


Hubbard reported from Cairo.

By Salon Staff

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