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After president resigns, Yemenis left in limbo

With a two-year democratic transition potentially in ruins, some Yemenis are fearful of the future; others see a fresh start
A building in Sanaa shelled during this week's fighting between Houthis and the presidential guard (MEE/Katie Riordan)

SANAA - Residents in Yemen's capital are reeling after the resignation on Thursday of their president, prime minister and the entire cabinet all within a matter of hours.

The swift departure of the country's top leaders comes days after residents - whose city has been occupied since September by Houthi militias who have set up checkpoints and captured an army base, government buildings and even private residences - witnessed members of the group surround the presidential palace and hold President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi under virtual arrest.

Speaking to Middle East Eye some said they saw the resignation of Hadi, tasked in 2012 with overseeing Yemen’s transition to democracy, as an opportunity; a chance for a fresh start. 

Others though expressed concern at the prospect of deepening unrest and lack of leadership in a country that, three years after a mass uprising, appears to be falling apart.

Sanaa's streets remained calm even after Friday prayers, which often serves as a focal point for protests in Yemen. But with no government and the fate of President Hadi in limbo, the city was abuzz with speculation.

Late on Thursday, when the news of Hadi's resignation broke, an elderly man purchasing groceries at a store in downtown Sana’a told the owner that Hadi’s rule was over. "Khalas," he said.

The shopkeeper, hearing the news for the first time, appeared stunned, and his eyes widened. “This is a problem,” he said, then smiled, laughing at the absurdity of living in a country without a president. 

For many Yemenis, the fate of Hadi, a political lightweight who as deputy to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh for years, was sealed the moment he took the job in 2012. Still, the fact that he has officially departed has taken people aback. 

"The government's resignation didn't surprise me, but Hadi's was shocking," said Abdo Al-Fageeh, a 39-year-old entrepreneur.  

Al-Fageeh said he thought that Hadi, in stepping down, was in fact vying to extend his rule. 

“Hadi may be playing a game, using his resignation to apply pressure on the Houthis to back off," he said. “Nothing is ever final in Yemen. Everything is a game," he said.

The fight for the chair

On Friday, thousands of heavily-armed men, as well as many in military uniforms, marched on the capital’s airport road in a pro-Houthi rally that also saw the protesters denounce the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Many of the supporters at the march said the country was headed in the right direction because the group had forced the government to comply with the UN-brokered peace and national partnership agreement made in September.

"He [Hadi] already failed," said Mohammed Al-Haifi, 35, one of the protesters who is unemployed, a situation he blamed on the government. 

"He [Hadi] was in office three years without making an improvements," said businessman Ali Mohammed, 40. "The government needed to be pushed. We are the one's pushing them."  

Other supporters of the Houthis, a predominantly Zaydi Shiite movement who have taken on the role of kingmakers since overrunning the capital in September, also seemed dismayed by the swift fall of the country’s leadership.  

One Houthi supporter, Ahmed Mohammed Hassan, who works for a local NGO said he thought the power vacuum created by Hadi's resignation would lead to a deterioration in the situation and blamed all political parties for not working together.

"They [Houthis] have a big challenge now," he said. "There won't be a better future unless everyone works together." 

Yemen’s ruling party, the GPC, have yet to reach a decision on whether to accept Hadi’s resignation.  According to the Yemeni constitution, the leader is obliged to stay in office for a further three months, but there has been speculation that Yemen’s speaker of parliament, Yahya Al-Rayi, may be a candidate.

"Now what, we choose a new president?" said Nazar Al-Saqqaf, 39-year-old manager of a marketing company. "He's not educated," said Al-Saqqaf referring to the speaker of parliament.

Al-Saqqaf said there would be a fight for the "chair" referring to the president's seat and speculated that former president Ali Abdullah Saleh will try to install his son, Ahmed Ali, in office.

"The good people who could fill the 'chair' already left the country. Saleh kicked them out long ago," he said.

Violence a new norm

Earlier this week, the Houthis, who hark from north Yemen and have hundreds of thousands of followers, exchanged gunfire with soldiers loyal to president, in a battle for control of the presidential palace.

The gunfight which raged on into the night Monday was the worst the capital has seen in months and left many of the city’s residents cowering in their homes.

For many violence has become part of daily life.

Unfazed by the shelling match which broke out on Monday and raged a little more than a kilometer away, Asil and Abdulrahman, two young welders who run a metal shop in southern Sanaa, tried to go about their business as usual.

Asil, a built man in his 30s with oil on his hands, said that if he went home every time fighting broke out in the capital he would be jobless. 

“We have grown used to it,” shrugged Asil.     

The Houthis’ 33-year-old leader, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, called for a ceasefire on Wednesday and said that his movement did not intend to topple the government. But with Hadi now gone, and the Houthis in control of most of the city, many fear that fighting between the militiamen and government loyalists will soon resume.

“It’s going to take a long time for all of this to resolve itself,” said 24-year-old Taha, a private sector employee who declined to give his last name.    

Waiting for peace to arrive is proving tough for a population grappling with joblessness, food shortages and a government that fails to deliver water and electricity.

Yemen’s US-backed transition, centered on a 10-month dialogue conference in 2013, was meant to pave the way for a new constitution based on compromise and the promise of democratic rule.

But with the latest cycle of violence, which saw rockets flatten parts of the capital, hopes for democracy and, most crucially, viable leadership are fading fast.

Enter Saleh?

Activists who led the campaign against Saleh fear the ex-president is trying to turn frustrations with the current government to his advantage.

“I want Ahmed Ali to take control,” said Ali Abdulla, a 26-year-old resident of Sanaa, referring to Saleh’s son who commanded a powerful military force that is now disbanded, but maintains its loyalty to the Salehs. “He built an army, and he could bring back security.” 

The airing on Al-Jazeera of recordings of alleged phone calls between Saleh and a senior Houthi official cemented a belief held by some Yemenis that the ex-president is behind the Shiite rebels’ meteoric rise.

Soldiers that once fought for Ahmed Ali under his Republican Guards have also been spotted alongside the Houthis in their popular committees. 

Analysts say the alliance between Saleh and the Houthis may only be temporary, each side using the other to serve their own interests, and may soon unravel.

Marib: The new front?

With observers fixated on the battle for the capital, a new battlefront is opening up in Marib, a large, oil-rich province 125 kilometers east of Sanaa.

Marib, one of the last stretches of territory in north Yemen that the Houthis have not entered, is home to heavily-armed Sunni tribesmen who have vowed to defend the area against a Houthi advance.

“The Houthis need to understand that expanding into Marib will be counterproductive and likely lead to prolonged conflict in the eastern regions,” said Nadwa al-Dawsari, a researcher on Yemen and an expert of tribal relations.

Dawsari said that by escalating the fight in Sana’a the Houthis were trying to tighten their grip on state military assets, including that the air force, and to pave the way for an economically lucrative takeover of Marib.

Dawsari said that the tribes in Marib had been mobilising for months to prevent the Houthis from taking over the governorate amidst rumors that they are receiving funding from the Saudis.

Both sides are heavily armed with the Houthis having amassed a large stockpile of weapons after stripping a military compound in Sanaa, and tribal forces in Marib seizing military equipment after ambushing a state convoy on its way to Sanaa earlier this month.

AQAP rising?

The Houthis have been locked in battles in other remote parts of Yemen with their sworn enemy al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - the Sunni militant group that have been using sectarian calls to incite violence against the Houthis, while also staging several attacks that have resulted in civilian casualties and heavy bombings.

The Houthis have used the fight against AQAP - whom they accuse of attacking infrastructure like oil pipelines and electricity towers - to justify a need for their presence in Marib.

In a list of demands made to the president that preceded the agreement to end the fighting in the capital, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi said the president must reconcile “the security situation” in Marib. 

“We want to push Hadi to go on [and lead the fight],” said Ali Al-Emad, a prominent Houthi in the group’s political office.

The most recent deal signed by Hadi and the Houthis calls for a committee to report back to president in a week’s time with recommendations on how to proceed in Marib.   

Abdulla Bin Hadhal, a tribal leader in Marib, is advocating for peace to prevail but explains that the situation in Marib will likely become violent.

“We are ready to defend Marib and Yemen in general,” he said.  

As a deep uncertainty about what comes next unsettles civilian populations across Yemen, many voice frustrations that there is little they can do but watch.

“It’s a political agenda,” said 25-year-old Sanaa resident Musa Faqui. “Fighting will start again. We are just waiting for something to push it over the edge.”