x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Tipping point as Yemen purges Saleh loyalists

Yemen's old system of shifting alliances will likely remain, but displacing some of the old guard could open the way to a more inclusive ruling elite.

The protracted fight among Yemen's elites spilt into the street - and onto the runway - again yesterday after the country's new president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, tried to sack a number of old-regime officers and officials.

Many of the men Mr Hadi dumped or demoted are relatives or allies of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. At least some Saleh loyalists chose to resist, and Sanaa's airport was closed amid reports of gunfire and threats to shoot down airplanes.

Although out of office, Mr Saleh is neither gone nor forgotten in Yemen. The country has been ruled by a network of power-brokers, behind the scenes more often than not, since its formation in 1990. Mr Saleh never exercised full control over those competing interests, but his shadow still looms over the patchwork of tribal affiliations, business interests and military influence. Mr Hadi, after all, was Mr Saleh's vice president.

For all of Mr Saleh's decades of misrule, his removal from office was an important piece of symbolism as much as a concrete sign of change. Protesters also called it a job half-done. Hundreds of thousands of people reportedly rallied on Friday, as they had done frequently, to demand a purge of Mr Saleh's men from office.

Mr Hadi gave the protesters some of what they wanted: he dumped Mr Saleh's half-brother as air force chief, and exiled the leader of the presidential guard, a Saleh nephew, to an inactive post. A Saleh relative by marriage lost command of a profitable oil-products company. And so on.

But Mr Saleh's son was left in charge of the elite Republican Guard, and another Saleh nephew retained a central security post. The shake-up appears, then, to shift the balance of power rather than completely reshape it. Change has just begun in Yemen, and the process will be difficult. Already the air force chief, Mohammed Saleh Al Ahmar, Mr Saleh's supposedly sacked half-brother, has reportedly refused to quit unless senior defence officials are dismissed too. Political horse-trading will persist in Yemen regardless of Mr Saleh's presence.

But dismissal of some his loyalists could - if Mr Hadi can complete it - be a step forward to break the deadlock. The old system of shifting alliances will remain, but displacing some of the old guard could open the way to a more inclusive ruling elite. Crucially, Mr Hadi will need to find a place in the power structure for leaders from alienated southern Yemen and the sidelined technocrats who can accomplish the economic reforms that are so crucial to the beleaguered country. At the same time, he must prevent a broader witch hunt against members of Mr Saleh's Sanhan tribe and other elites.

It's a formidable agenda. But change must start somewhere, and on Friday we saw another significant step.