On April 7, Yemen’s Interim President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi transferred his powers to an eight-member Presidential Leadership Council, which was sworn in on April 17 in Aden during the two-month nation-wide truce. The council is led by Hadi’s advisor, Rashad Al-Alimi, and this chairmanship grants Al-Alimi authority over the army and allows him to appoint governors and other key positions. Hadi’s presidential declaration also established a reconciliation body as well as legal and economic teams.
This newly appointed Presidential Council reveals how the country is evolving. Combining officials from internationally recognized institutions and armed group leaders with ground legitimacy and territorial control maximizes hybridity. This is not a novel dynamic for Yemen, as the hybridization of formal and informal defense forces became normalized after the 2011 uprising and the start of the current conflict in late 2014. Now, however, with the appointment of the Presidential Council, there is top-down political recognition through the formal co-optation of the so-called hybrid sovereignties which rule over the territory in a de-facto manner. As a result, the composition of the Presidential Council, providing the same status to formal and informal players, emphasizes Yemen’s post-hybrid balance.
The Sunset of Politicians and National Leaders
The new council will be more representative than Yemeni institutions in the past, and the council will not feature representation from any political party leaders. After seven years of war, Yemen’s primary national political parties, the General People’s Congress and Islah, have both fractured and transformed. Because of their historical weaknesses, they have failed to bring an end to the country’s years-long war. In addition, many traditional parties still seek the idea of a unified Yemen, while local leaders pursue greater regional autonomy and are directly or indirectly supported by armed groups.
Reflecting dynamics on the ground, the new council makes way for the rise of leaders, including both northerners and southerners, from groups with a military genealogy as well as from the local and governorate-level. As such, the biggest obstacle for Yemen will be the integration of competing micro-powers into a national and cohesive political landscape.
Representative But Not Cohesive
While the council is representative of many parties with a stake in the outcome of the country, it is not cohesive in a way that allows for effective decision-making. Rather, the Presidential Council reveals the country’s lingering fragmentation and sheds light on the failure of past coalition-building attempts in the anti-Houthi camp. Most previous efforts have failed because of overriding power rivalries and competing agendas, and this same fragmentation exists on the new council. For instance, Aydarous Al Zubaidi, a member of the council, is the president of the self-proclaimed Southern Transitional Council (STC) which only formally joined the recognized government in late 2019. Another example of competing priorities is the fact that Tareq Saleh, the head of the National Resistance Forces, and Abu Zaara, the commander of the Giants Brigades, are both members of the council despite still formally being part of the West Coast Forces military coalition, led by Saleh. With so many internal contradictions, the council risks not being strong enough to reach an agreement with the Houthis.
Furthermore, and unfortunately, political disagreements among council members regarding territorial control and chains of command are not likely to disappear. Local rivalries are still alive, and many of the council’s members, like the powerful governors of Marib and Hadhramawt, have managed to forge de facto areas of control on the ground with military and economic networks that will prove difficult to integrate under a national framework. The regional backing issue is also crucial, adding another obstacle on the road to political cohesion. Saudi Arabia, which is seeking a military exit strategy from Yemen, strongly pushed for Hadi’s transfer of power to the council and fully supports Al-Alimi’s leadership role. However, the real problem is that many of the council’s members have significant ties to the United Arab Emirates as a result of Abu Dhabi’s support for their armed forces. For Al-Alimi, building some sort of political consensus among the council’s members is the first difficult step to engaging the Houthis in negotiations for a permanent ceasefire that will hopefully pave the way for an end to the war.
Yemen’s Post-Hybridity Age
As Yemen continues to forge a post-hybrid reality via the composition of this new council, the line between formal and informal forces and state and counter-state governance becomes increasingly indistinguishable, resulting in an even more ambiguous—and hard to govern—landscape. However, regardless of its effectiveness, the newly appointed council is a reliable snapshot of Yemen’s current power balance, as the country has turned into a variety of micro-states ruling portions of the Yemeni territory. In this context, while the Presidential Council offers Yemen a chance for inclusive negotiations, its members’ varied agendas could easily turn into a political obstacle on the road to stabilization.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and a Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan.