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What Yemen’s Presidential Vote Means for U.S. Interests, Yemeni Daily Life

A man votes in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images.

Citizens of Yemen went to the polls Tuesday to mark their vote on a presidential ballot that had only one name on it, that of current Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi succeeds President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’s 33-years of authoritarian rule ended amid violent protests last year.

While the vote might hardly seem like an exercise in democracy to some, the stakes for Yemen, and the United States couldn’t be higher.

Over the past year, the United States has been running a covert war in Yemen, carrying out a series of drone attacks that killed a number of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders and operatives, including the American born Anwar al-Awlaki. Yemen’s army also has been engaged in a tit-for-tat fight with the terror group, while trying to manage both a separatist movement in the south and a rebellion in the north.

Gregory Johnsen was a Fulbright fellow in Yemen and in 2009 was a member of USAID’s conflict assessment team for that country. He’s now a Near East studies scholar at Princeton University and blogs regularly here about Yemen. He told us just what’s at stake in Yemen right now (hint: a lot). Answers edited for length and clarity.

How big a threat to the West and the region are AQAP and other Islamic extremists inside of Yemen?

Gregory Johnsen: Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula continues to remain a threat to the West. Throughout the past year of upheavals and chaos in Yemen, the group has taken advantage of gaps in government across the south, and has even occupied a few towns, establishing a rudimentary police force and implementing a narrow version of Islamic law complete with brutal punishments, including the loss of hands and feet for convicted criminals.

AQAP and its affiliated group Ansar al-Shariah appears to have grown in strength and seems to be making a concentrated effort to flatten itself out in an effort to expand its base of support within Yemen. But nothing in their rhetoric or action suggests that they no longer view the United States as an enemy. AQAP will continue to attempt to strike the U.S. whenever and however it can.

Yemen — and Saleh — have been such an important part of the U.S. fight against AQAP. What impact will this transition at the top have on that fight?

Johnsen: Little in Yemen’s military has changed. Saleh’s sons and nephews continue to hold key positions, and in years past they have been the primary recipients of U.S. aid and training.

Hadi has stated that one of his first priorities will be a restructuring of Yemen’s military, but this will be a tricky undertaking that touches on tribes and patronage, the two key rails of the established system. Some in the political opposition have criticized Saleh’s close relationship with the U.S. on counter-terrorism, comparing him to a “contractor,” suggesting that they would manage the relationship differently in the future.

Hadi will likely need more political cover than Saleh did, and so in the short term the U.S. can expect more resistance to some of its (drone) strikes than in the past. At the same time, with such a weak and divided base of support within the country, Hadi will need much more international support than Saleh ever did. So the U.S. could easily find itself in a position where it is getting less while paying more.

On Monday, Obama’s deputy national security adviser John Brennan stopped in Yemen, saying that Hadi is “committed … to destroying al-Qaida, and I consider him a good and strong counter-terrorism partner.” How strong a partner will he, and his army, really be?

Johnsen: The only problem with Brennan’s remarks and the U.S. focus is that al-Qaida and counter-terrorism is not Yemen’s most pressing issue. If Hadi is seen as focusing on this to the exclusion of Yemen’s numerous other problems he could quickly lose the little domestic support he currently enjoys.

Yemen will always have a seemingly more pressing problem to deal with than the economy. But the economy is the silent killer, eating away at the foundations of the state. If Hadi and his new government neglect it to focus on the political problems that explode around the country they will effectively short-circuit exactly the sort of state the U.S. and the international community want to see Yemen become.

How exactly does the U.S. help Yemen’s military in this fight? What specifically does the U.S. provide to Yemen, aside from the occasional lethal drone strike?

Johnsen: The U.S. has done a number of things, from training counter-terror units and providing aid and equipment, to unilaterally carrying out its own strikes with drones and Tomahawk Cruise missiles.

The problem so far, however, has been that the U.S. does not really have a Yemen policy, what it has is a counter-terrorism strategy that it applies to Yemen. Essentially, the U.S. sees Yemen only through the prism of counter-terrorism and the threat from al-Qaida. That sort of narrow view can often lead to mistakes of policy and pursuing short-term interests at the costs of long-term gains.

Hadi is part of the old regime. Does his election going to have any real impact on the government in Yemen? Will the average Yemeni experience any tangible change in his or her daily life?

Johnsen: I think this is the key question. Today’s vote in Yemen — in which the ballot had only one name and a “no” vote was not an option — was primarily portrayed as a vote against Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemenis are desperate for change. They have been protesting and dying in the streets for more than a year now.

That being said, there are two important points to keep in mind: First, none of the problems that have come to the forefront over the past year have been dealt with. All of the key political players are still on the scene. No one has been forced into exile, prison, or the grave like we’ve seen in other Arab countries. Even Saleh will return to the country at some point.

In fact, today we saw the very curious image of different commanders, who were shelling and killing each other months ago all casting their votes for Hadi. The question of what those commanders and constituencies do when Hadi is forced to make a tough decision — that they feel goes against their narrow interests — remains an open one. Do they once again take up arms, or will they submit to the authority of the central state?

At the street level, Hadi will have to deal with the artificially inflated expectations of many. There is a widespread belief in Yemen that Saleh is at the root of all the country’s problems. But tomorrow, when Yemenis wake up with Hadi as their president, they are going to be faced with the same economic reality they remember from when they first took to the streets last January and February, worse even, as Yemen’s economy has taken a real drubbing over the past year.

There were also large parts of the country, primarily in the far north and south that boycotted the elections, and how Hadi manages trying to bring these divided and diverse groups back into Yemen’s political tent will be a difficult test for an unproven president.

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