How the new presidential council could shape Yemen's future
The recent overhaul of presidential power and the ensuing influx of exiled Yemeni officials into Aden have set the stage for a new reality in Yemen.
For the past seven years, the UN-recognised Yemeni leadership has been exiled in Saudi Arabia following its ousting by the Houthi movement. Since then, a new leadership has assumed responsibility on the ground, but Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi remained the internationally-recognised president since 2015 while in exile.
However, on 7 April he handed over authority to a newly formed eight-member body named the Presidential Leadership Council. The breakthrough was the outcome of two weeks of talks between Yemen’s warring parties, sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh.
Two weeks after the power handover, Yemeni parliament members, the prime minister, as well as the appointed head of the Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad Al-Alimi, and his seven deputies arrived in Aden.
"While the return of these officials to Yemen is a crucial development, it is hard to say whether fighting will break out again, prolonging the war, or if peace will prevail"
Last week, on 20 April, the council's members were sworn in before the parliament in the presence of the US and UN envoys in Yemen. The intention of the new leadership appears clear: running the country from within, not remotely as former president Hadi did.
While the return of these officials to Yemen is a crucial development, it is hard to say whether fighting will break out again, prolonging the war, or if peace will prevail. However, indications from the past and present of the conflict can give some insight into what the future could look like for Yemen.
There are three possible scenarios for this war-ravaged nation in the months to come.
The first scenario is that the council will manage to work jointly and govern Houthi-free areas without any internal disputes between its members. On the first day of its formation, the new leadership articulated numerous political, economic, and military goals.
For these goals to be attained, the unity of the council members is vital. The level of agreement among the new leaders will be the nucleus of their success or failure in this interim phase.
The council's ability to unite the conflicting agendas will provide them with enormous political and military leverage. Indeed, unifying all the military and security units under the defence and internal affairs ministries will enable the council to turn its words into actions.
In his speech on 20 April in Aden, the head of the leadership council Al-Alimi said the council is committed to establishing "fair and permanent peace that preserves the state and its constitutional institutions".
Al-Alimi's goal is ambitious, and its accomplishment requires zero fraction between the council members. This is the scenario that multitudes of Yemenis hope to see. The absence of feuds will bring relief to areas in the south as the presence of the state authorities will improve people's livelihoods, at least in government-controlled provinces, while areas in Yemen's north will remain under the Houthis' grip.
The second scenario is finding peace through direct talks with the Houthis or, alternatively, resorting once again to war. Indeed, the past two decades have provided a reliable but grim answer to the likelihood of the effectiveness of political dialogue in Yemen.
Houthis have fought several wars, starting in their stronghold in Sa'ada in 2004 during the regime of late president Ali Abdulla Saleh who they murdered in 2017. Mulling over the Houthi rise, expansion, and vision, it is likely that future peace negotiations between the rebel group and the leadership council will falter.
Ruling northern Yemen since 2015, the group is now acting as the legitimate authority there. Therefore, their confidence in their military power and adherence to dogmatic ideas are likely to render any talks ineffective.
Houthis say any Yemeni official appointed by other countries does not represent the Yemeni people. "No free and real Yemeni can accept anyone nominated by a [foreign] country that attacks and besieges his people," Hussein Al-Ezzi, a senior Houthi official, wrote in a tweet on 22 April.
He added, "Only Yemen can determine, appoint and choose. Not the aggression countries or any other country in general".
The Houthis' defiant stance may oblige the new leadership council to use military power. Consequently, the likelihood of a conflict is high. Al-Alimi, who is now the new president of Yemen, said in his speech on 20 April that the leadership council is committed to "ending the [Houthi] coup and the war." Apparently, ending the coup in Yemen cannot be achieved at the negotiating table, only on the battlefield.
"Separatist voices and forces are quiet for now, but it is not clear how long their silence will last"
The third possible outcome is the failure of the leadership council, which could slide into infighting. This concern is valid given the conflicting agendas held by leadership council members. Separatist voices and forces are quiet for now, but it is not clear how long their silence will last.
Aidarous Al-Zoubeidi, the head of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a separatist body set up in 2017, was among the officials who took the ceremonial oath before the parliament on 20 January.
All members swore the oath without hesitation except for Zoubeidi. He excluded the words "unity" of the country and "the republican system", as written in the oath, while being sworn in. His actions signify that he is not ready to abandon his separatist vision wholeheartedly.
Historically, southern and northern Yemen were two independent states, merged into one country in 1990 out of the willingness and approval of the two states' leaders at the time. However, the southern struggle for separation has not waned over the last two decades.
Therefore, secessionist aspirations should not be treated as merely a peripheral threat to the leadership council in the days to come. A political researcher in Aden, preferring to remain anonymous, told The New Arab that the southern separatists could be a genuine challenge for the leadership council.
"They believe they have the right to independence and self-determination, and they are ready to make a sacrifice to reach such a goal. Therefore, if they revolt against the new leadership, chaos will rise in Aden. This will block the government from making any economic reforms or realising any military gains," the researcher said.
"For the leadership council to avoid clashing with the secessionist groups, Saudi and Emirati political and military support should continue. Regional and UN backing will discourage those seeking to undermine the new leadership. The solid stability in the south will lead to fruitful talks or a decisive war with the Houthis in the north, which will help end the war in Yemen," he added.
The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.