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President Sacks Generals, Renews National Dialogue in Divided Yemen

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi opened a six-month National Dialogue on March 18, 2013 and invited 565 Yemenis to chart a new future for their troubled nation. (AP)

President Hadi could boost national constitutional debate if he manages to end military careers of family who ruled for Yemen for three decades.

Interim President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen hopes to rebuild his government by purging remnants of the Saleh family that ruled the country more than 30 years.

Among those remnants of Saleh family are high-ranking army generals who have refused to step down.

Hadi's move against the generals comes as he is trying to recruit 565 leaders from all of Yemen's political, tribal and social factions to join in a six-month National Dialogue designed to produce a new constitution.

Hadi became transitional president more than a year ago when the Gulf Cooperation Council forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign under threat of being charged in the 2011 shooting deaths of 45 demonstrators protesting his 33-year rule.

The GCC-brokered presidential resignation had strong support from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United States, which – with Hadi's agreement – has been using drones to go after al-Qaida suspects in Yemen.

Can Hadi declare presidential independence?

After becoming interim president, Hadi bided his time before making his first moves to weed out elements of the Saleh government. As his first move, Hadi announced the removal of Ahmed Ali Saleh, the ex-president’s eldest son, ex-head of the powerful Republican Guard and former heir-apparent to rule Yemen. He was appointed ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

Many of these decrees only exist on paper and they have to be implemented, which in Yemen is always a trick.
Greg Johnsen, Princeton University
A Saleh nephew who was deputy chief of intelligence became military attaché in Yemen’s embassy in Ethiopia. Another Saleh nephew who headed of the Presidential Guard was named military attaché in Germany.

Yet another Saleh military man to get removed was Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who commanded 50,000 troops of Yemen’s First Armored Division in Sana’a. The general was effectively neutralized by being appointed presidential adviser.

Can Hadi make good on his word?

“Many of these decrees only exist on paper and they have to be implemented, which in Yemen is always a trick,” said Greg Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University.

“I see it as one of the best moves in Yemen following the departure of former President Saleh,” said Khaled Fattah, Yemen specialist from the University of Lund. “There is a trust now in the transitional government and that he is capable of achieving. So, it’s really a catalyst for the National Dialogue.”

No Kalashnikovs allowed in the Movenpick

That dialogue to draw up a new constitution started in March and Danya Greenfield of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East wrote that it has been dealing with Yemen’s thorniest issues.

I see it as one of the best moves in Yemen following the departure of former President Saleh.
Khaled Fattah, University of Lund
Among those issues are calls for independence by southern Yemen, an ongoing uprising in the north waged by the large al-Houthi tribe, the need for strengthened federal governance in a country dominated by traditional tribes, and a voice for women and youth who were big factors in the Arab Spring protests that helped topple the Saleh regime.

The constitutional talks are being held at Sana’a’s Movenpick hotel and security around the complex is tight. Yemen is a nation where it’s not unusual to see civilian men carrying submachine guns in public. But all those taking part in the talks must check their weapons with the military before entering the Movenpick area.

Facing Yemen’s political future

Despite the desire for a new constitution, not all of Yemen’s major players are taking part in the conference.

Among those staying away were Tawakkol Karman, whose charismatic voice for political reform earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, and Ali Salim al-Beidh, a former president of South Yemen.

Beidh was Saleh’s vice president during Yemen’s short north-south unification. He now leads the Hirak movement and is pressing for South Yemen’s independence, a demand that analysts say is a major issue in the constitutional talks.

Princeton’s Greg Johnsen cites another obstacle that needs to be overcome in the constitutional negotiations.

“One of the shortcomings of the National Dialogue is that it is seen largely as something that the international community - both the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) as well as the U.S. and the U.N. - really pushed on Yemen,” said Johnsen.

“The idea is to bring a lot of Yemenis together, put them all in a room and hope they come up with a solution,” he said, adding that most delegates are there only to protect their own interests.

The plan is that Yemen will hold new elections sometime next year – if the National Dialogue talks can come up with a new constitution.

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