Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Proud, but risky comeback

President Hadi’s return to Aden is being portrayed as a boost to the fight against the Houthi-Saleh alliance. But the road is yet long to him resuming his national mandate, writes Hossam Radman

Al-Ahram Weekly

When President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi alighted at Aden International Airport on Tuesday 22 September, throngs of journalists were waiting for him. Everyone was eager for headline grabbing news from the man who fled the country six months ago to escape capture or worse at the hands of forces loyal to former president Ali Abdallah Saleh and his northern Shia allies, the Houthis.

But no triumphant remarks were made at the airport. Disappointment settled in as the president, who’s been in exile in Saudi Arabia since March, made a quiet departure to a high security hotel in the southern port city, now his temporary capital.

But his return to Aden is still a slap on the face of the Saleh-Houthi alliance, which had portrayed his departure from Yemen as a final defeat. Houthi and Saleh fighters captured Sanaa a year ago and it is still under their control.

In July, pro-Hadi forces backed by airstrikes and ground troops from the Saudi-led coalition succeeded in driving Houthis and Saleh loyalists from Aden. But locals say that jihadists associated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS are still operating in the port city.

Leaving the airport, Hadi proceeded to Al-Qasr Hotel in the district of Boreija, which will serve as his temporary headquarters. The hotel is one of the least damaged buildings in the port city, which has been devastated in recent battles.

The hotel, Al-Ahram Weekly learned, was once owned jointly by a son of Ali Abdallah Saleh and a son of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

According to the UN, nearly 5,000 people were killed in fighting in Yemen since 26 March, about half of them civilians.

On the first day in his interim capital, President Hadi refused to meet any journalist, focusing instead on talking to his close aides.

It was curious to see, for a change, a Yemeni official dodging the limelight. But the Weekly learned that Hadi was advised by the UAE, which provides him with personal bodyguards, to avoid public appearances for the moment.

Just before the Yemeni president arrived in Aden, Patriot missile batteries were set up at strategic locations in the capital as a precaution against Houthi-Saleh attacks.

Since recapturing Aden, Hadi loyalists have advanced towards Sanaa, but they face stiff resistance in Mareb governorate. In the few days since Hadi’s return, the Houthis also waged counterattacks on more than one front.

Hadi has not returned to a completely secure land. In fact, the flanks of the south are still vulnerable to attack. When the Weekly asked Prime Minister Khaled Bahhah about the significance of the return, he said it has “symbolic” value, adding that it will have a positive impact on the morale of the resistance, government and population.

If the population found Hadi’s return reassuring, they showed it in ways that the president may not have expected. Some gathered, rather boldly, in front of Al-Qasr Hotel to demand their overdue wages. Some of the protesters were hardened fighters, people who had to take part in the anti-Houthi resistance, and were promised monthly wages in return.

The protesters, however, seemed to have a good rapport with the UAE soldiers protecting the president. While chanting their demands, they passed bottles of iced water back and forth to the soldiers, and never once tried to push against the security line established by the Emirati bodyguards.

But many are concerned over the lack of security in Aden, where former resistance groups may make the transition to criminal gangs unless the president asserts his power in a timely manner.

On his second day in Aden, Hadi got up early for a meeting with the leaders of the popular resistance. He spoke to them of the importance of integrating resistance fighters into the army and security forces — the only way to avoid a collapse of law and order.

Unless action to tighten security is taken rapidly, many fear that Al-Qaeda and ISIS may exploit the power vacuum and take more land.

With political power still shaky and dozens of ideologically divergent militia operating in the country, Hadi’s task is far from easy. He has to consolidate security, persuade unemployed young men to refrain from working for well-paid militia, and reconcile the political wishes of the separatists of the Harak Movement with the need to revive a credible central government capable of leading the reconstruction effort.

In the speech Hadi made to mark Eid Al-Adha, the end-of-pilgrimage Muslim feast, Hadi made a familiar statement: “I came to Aden and will not stop until I am in Sanaa,” he told his audience, many of whom remember hearing the same words months ago, before the president fled by sea into exile.

The words may not be new, but they were troubling to his opponents. A close associate of former president Ali Abdallah Saleh said that the latter was agitated by Hadi’s show of defiance. A day later, Saleh ordered his troops into battle, and managed to achieve immediate progress on several fronts.

In Taiz, Hadi loyalists, now fighting against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, were running out of ammunition.

The Weekly happened across two Taiz resistance fighters trying to buy ammunition in Aden. They reached an initial deal, then in the last moment the seller, a hard-line southern separatist, reneged on the deal, saying he cannot sell arms to “northerners”.

Hadi is trying to move on more than one front. He has promised to send reinforcements to Taiz. And he is trying to appoint a new governor to Aden to restore law and order. He had dismissed Aden’s former governor, Naif Al-Bakri, because of a clan conflict. One possible candidate for the job is Idros Al-Zobeidi, commander of the popular resistance and a key figure in the Harak Movement.

When Hadi performed Al-Adha prayers in Aden, he received a warm welcome from worshippers, but it was somewhat less enthusiastic than usual.

Many Aden inhabitants are worried about the infiltration of ISIS fighters into their town. Many could have told the returning president that in the neighbourhood of Al-Tawahi, ISIS has turned Al-Minaa School into a training camp for their operatives.

Hadi rose halfway to the challenge and took a delegation to Al-Tawahi to inspect Al-Maashiq Palace — a historic building that was reduced to rubble. But the road he took was carefully planned to avoid passing by Al-Minaa School.

The way things are unfolding in Yemen suggest that Washington is still reluctant to support the Saudi-led campaign against Saleh and the Houthis. The Americans may do so if they find a viable alternative, but so far that alternative hasn’t been found.

Hadi’s visit to New York for the UN General Assembly would doubtless include once again pleading for support. But it is far from clear how major countries such as the US and Russia will react to his pleas.

Major powers are now thinking about a new formula for the Middle East, and they may be using Yemen as a way of pressuring Saudi Arabia into accepting that new formula.

What the Saudi-backed Hadi achieved so far is no mean accomplishment. Flying to New York from a Yemeni airport, albeit on borrowed capital and borrowed time, is much better than heading to a world gathering as a president in exile.

But Hadi’s opponents are far from weakened. They are not just in control of Sanaa. The vigour of their renewed attacks on Taiz and Abyin suggest that — unlike Hadi’s loyalists — they are not going to run out of ammunition anytime soon.

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