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Yemen's President Hadi surprises pessimists with moves toward reform

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Hadi, a military man who hails from Yemen's turbulent south, was also seen as loyal to Saleh: His appointment as vice president was widely seen as a reward for supporting Saleh during Yemen’s north-south 1994 Civil War. And even as crackdowns on demonstrators prompted scores of members of the GPC to break ranks with the former president, Hadi stood by Saleh's side.

So when Hadi came to power with the backing of both Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party and the nation’s establishment opposition parties, few expected him to make a definitive break from the past.

Saleh playing the role of spoiler?

But Hadi appears intent on reform, though many challenges lie ahead.

The restructuring of Yemen’s divided military is among the chief tasks facing Hadi and the unity government, which is also expected to preside over a process of national dialogue and the rewriting of the nation’s constitution.

Largely led by the former president’s family members and tribal allies, Yemen’s military once served as one of the primary foundations of Saleh’s rule. But over the past year, the defection of a number of powerful military leaders has left Saleh’s inner circle divided. Clashes between loyalist forces and troops led by powerful defector Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar transformed swaths central Sanaa into a virtual war zone last fall. The threat of factional violence has temporarily dissipated, but divisions within the military have thwarted efforts to restore order in Yemen.

While Hadi’s steps towards military reform have already earned him plaudits in some quarters – one government spokesman enthusiastically characterized a swarm of decrees issued on April 6 as “the biggest military shakeup in modern Yemeni history” – the reactions of some of his targets have underscored the thorny nature of the process of military restructuring. 

Two military leaders reassigned on April 6 – outgoing Air Force head Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, the former president’s half-brother, and Tareq Mohamed Saleh, a nephew of the former president who commands the Presidential Guard – refused Hadi’s orders. While the Air Force chief eventually bowed to international pressure and accepted the order, the situation of Saleh's nephew remains unclear.

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