White coup in Yemen

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 7 Apr 2016

Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi sits during a meeting with government officials in the country's southern port city of Aden, December 1, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

The replacement of Khaled Bahah as both prime minister and vice president suggests a resolution to the Yemeni crisis is closer to hand and may entail the exit of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Two important developments regarding Yemen mark a qualitative shift toward the anticipated political solution to the Yemeni crisis that will hopefully emerge from talks in Kuwait.

The first is the resignation of Khaled Bahah who had served in the dual capacity as Yemeni vice president and prime minister until 3 April. Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi has appointed Ahmed Bin Dagher to replace Bahah as prime minister and General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar to replace him as vice president.

The second development emerged in the course of Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s interview with Bloomberg news agency. “We have good contacts with the Houthis, with a delegation currently in Riyadh. We believe that we are closer than ever to a political solution in Yemen,” he said.

Al-Ahram Weekly has learned from a source close to the circles of President Hadi that the changes in the Yemeni executive were shaped by numerous factors. The foremost was the gap between Hadi and Bahah. Describing the latter’s dismissal as a “white coup”, the source went on to explain: “Bahah does not seem to be the right man for the current and coming phases.

He is not in full accord with the president. In fact, he bypassed the president in many decisions and failed to implement other decisions. For example, he did not perform the agreed upon role in the question of incorporating the Yemeni popular resistance forces into the army. Nor did he treat with question of the families of the martyrs and wounded in the war with the appropriate degree of attention.

Also, there are details pertaining to his unilateral administration of Soqotra Island on behalf of the UAE that were subjects of disagreement. In addition, he was not inclined to cooperate with diverse parties, especially the Islamist ones like Al-Islah (The Yemeni Congregation for Reform).”

Because of such differences, the source added, President Hadi felt compelled to promptly dismiss Bahah, “who was left with only an honorary post that carries no weight”.

The choices of Bahah’s replacements were intended to convey certain messages to all political parties. According to the same source, the choice of Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar is appropriate to the current circumstances.

“He has been tried and tested in the war and, practically speaking, he is the deputy supreme commander. In fact, he had been appointed to this post less than two months ago. The vice president is not a constitutionally stipulated office; it was introduced recently.

A strong presidency is contingent upon a certain balance of forces needed to lay the groundwork for the coming phase. [Al-Ahmar] is a northerner who belongs to one of the oldest Yemeni families: Al-Ahmar clan. He is widely connected with all political trends, including the Islamist ones such as Al-Islah and even the General People’s Congress (GPC).

In fact, he was a prominent figure in the GPC even if he did not believe in it, and he remains on good terms with its leaders. Therefore, for those who maintain that government in Sanaa requires a northerner, here is the northerner with the tribal and political contacts, not to mention the military connections, as he holds one of the highest ranks and enjoys the respect and admiration of most military leaders, including those aligned with [former president Ali Abdullah] Saleh, himself.

However, there remains a point we must not overlook. Al-Ahmar, as a military man, is a card that serves as a guarantee for both peace and war. If a peace is concluded, he can guarantee it because he understands the importance of stability. If war is the ultimate alternative in the event that negotiations fail, then he is the man to fight it.”

On the selection of the replacement as prime minister, Ahmed Bin Dagher was the number two man in the GPC before the revolution and, theoretically, he is still affiliated with the party in spite of his support for the February 2011 revolution that overthrew the regime of Saleh.

In fact, although he has been replaced in the party by Aref Al-Zoka, he is still a member of the party’s central committee. In addition, he has experience in government, having served as deputy prime minister in the Saleh era as well.

The abovementioned source adds: “Bin Dagher is a southerner. But he is also a GPC-man and he had been Saleh’s right-hand man. He therefore is a nod to the southerners who insist that the prime minister’s post is their right and, at the same time, he is a nod to the GPC because he is one of its senior leaders.

This serves as a message that states that Hadi has no intention to eliminate the GPC and that he will retain a role for it in the forthcoming political scene.”

It thus appears that the stage is being set for Saleh’s final departure. He had previously stated that that he was not interested in a post and that his sole concern was to keep his party alive.

Naturally all the foregoing relates to the second crucial development mentioned above the “significant progress in negotiations” between Riyadh and the Houthis that Prince Mohammed Bin Salman spoke of in his interview with Bloomberg. It appears that the second round of talks between the Houthi movement and Riyadh will yield a positive framework of understanding.

Last month, the two sides initiated direct contact in the western Saudi town of Abha at the level of a small relatively low level Saudi security delegation and Houthi representatives. Now, the talks have moved to a higher level, in Riyadh itself, and with a higher tier of Saudi officials immediately connected with the issue.

Already one of the fruits of the talks has been the release of 109 Houthi hostages held by Saudi Arabia in exchange for the release of nine Saudi hostages who had been held by the Houthis.

Nevertheless, Bin Salman was careful to stress, in the Bloomberg interview, that Riyadh was “pushing to have this opportunity [for a political solution] materialise on the ground, but if things relapse, we are ready”.

Still, this interview does not explain the curious situation of a fragile truce between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis along the Yemeni-border while Houthi forces continue to escalate around Taiz, on the one hand, and the Saudi-led coalition is continuing aerial assaults against Saada, the Houthi stronghold in northern Yemen.

Earlier this week, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced that teams of international experts have gathered in three capitals, Riyadh, Kuwait and Sanaa, to begin preparations for anticipated talks in Yemen itself.

However, the Houthi-Saudi talks that Bin Salman mentioned precede forthcoming negotiations in Kuwait and may well set the agenda for those negotiations.

At another level, the fact that the Saudis are talking to the Houthis separately, which is to say without representatives from the Saleh contingent, is very significant. Firstly, it means that Riyadh believes it important to separate the two.

Secondly, it means than in the future, Riyadh intends to arrange how the Houthi movement relates to Saudi Arabia rather than leaving that to Saleh, as was the case in the past.

*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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