You can bet that the new Yemeni Prime Minister, Khalid Bahah, will have an excruciatingly difficult task forming a unity government, after being asked to do so by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He has less than a month, with the clock ticking, to turn the country around and save it from a deadly civil war and a possible break-up, which many are clamouring for. Bahah, who left his post as the Yemeni envoy to the United Nations and previously dabbled with domestic politics as the oil minister, is now faced with the task of bringing the country’s warring factions, tribes and political parties together in a Herculean effort to set the country on the road to political stability and, dare one say, economic development.
Despite the deadly machinations on the streets of Yemen and the constantly rising death toll, Bahah is a realist and a technocrat. He is not a hard-knuckle politician who is likely to play one party against the other, which former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years before his ouster, did with such skill and dexterity.
This maybe why Al Houthis, sometimes referred to as Ansar Allah, who took over Sana’a last month and are moving south, encountering little resistance, actually endorsed his name. He is seen as a compromise candidate, since Al Houthis rejected Ahmad Awad Bin Mubarak, whose name was put forward by Hadi. They rejected him as he was seen as being too close to the establishment and Al Houthis suspected that the Americans may have endorsed his appointment.
Regardless, it is now time for Bahah to put a consensus cabinet together and start dealing with issues like food shortages, fuel prices and violence that have crippled the country since the so-called Arab Spring demonstrations.
Apart from Al Houthis, who want greater autonomy, a greater say in their affairs and better services, there is the Hirak youth movement in the south, calling for reforms as well as the Islamist Islah party, the Nasserists and socialist outfits as well as tribal leaders who want a stake in the new government. Add to this the issue of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is trying to grab political power and turn its guns on Al Houthis, the state authorities and the army.
This indeed is the ultimate litmus test for Bahah, the trick he now must conjure up is how to bring diverse ideologies together to serve the nation. Can he capitalise on the meetings between government and the opposition groups that took place in 2013 and early 2014, to set the country on the path of political reform and come up with a constitution by 2015?
There is now a new twist in the tale: Al Houthis are advancing southwards, raising questions about security. They are neither serious about incorporating their fighters into a newly-reconstructed Yemeni army nor are they interested in giving up their alleged relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. These are vital security questions that must be on top of Bahah’s agenda.
Another issue is addressing the demands of the dozen or so political groups in the south of the country, reenergised by the Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011 throughout the country and later by Al Houthis’ gains in the north and their swift move and takeover of Sana’a, which inflicted a powerful blow to the stature of the Yemeni state and government. Yemen was already in the doldrums because of Hadi’s inability to exercise control outside major towns and cities. This image of the state has been worsened by Al Houthis’ drive to the Ibb governorate and their takeover of the coastal city of Hodeidah, where Al Houthis are encountering Sunni tribes in the form of the Tehama movement. But the blows to such an image would surely continue if Al Houthis capture Aden, the former capital of the socialist South Yemen, which was united with the north in 1990.
This could well complicate the situation for Bahah, who may be faced with more horse-trading from parties and factions in forming the new cabinet. They may yet demand more seats in return for dropping their demand for total cessation. This is bearing in mind they are still unsure about the seriousness of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement signed on September 21 with Hadi, setting out a plan for a federal state with six regions — two in the south and four in the north.
It is early days yet. Political leaders and parties in the south still hold a grudge against Sana’a and the northern leadership. They never forgave the Saleh government for capitalising on the cabinet portfolios, emanating from the 1990 unity talks and reducing the southerners to a shadow of their former self, with their leader Ali Salem Al Biedh exiled in Beirut.
Bahah has a lot on this plate and must tread carefully. Although there are agreements on reconciliation, the situation is still fluid. If violence can be contained, then a major breakthrough can be achieved and Bahah will be able to form his government.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a Phd in Political Science from Leeds University in the United Kingdom.