A New President and an "American Sheikh" Deal With Post-Saleh Yemen

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Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Yemen's new president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (L) receives the country's national flag from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Sanaa Feb. 27, 2012.

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Hadi's first move of note was to reassure the U.S., a source of billions of dollars of foreign military aid, that he is an able and willing partner in their fight against global terrorism. Twice now he has called the battle against al-Qaeda a "national and religious duty." But with swathes of the south now firmly in the hands of the radical Islamist cadres and a large chunk of the armed forces taking its orders from a mutinous army general, the government's scrap with extremists does not look likely to be over any time soon.

Indeed, the Obama administration appears bent on continuing its controversial strategy of using unmanned drones to target its wanted terrorists in the country. "I would say that we would continue along the lines that we have been pursuing," said Gerald M. Feierstein, the US Ambassador to Yemen, when asked last week if he anticipated any changes to U.S. counterterrorism as a result of the Arab spring upheaval. The drone strikes have enabled America to "pick off" a few of their most-wanted men, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who had been the group's star recruiter and public face. The strategy, however, all too frequently kills civilians in the process, stoking widespread anger and cementing the belief held by many Yemenis, that the U.S. focus on al-Qaeda is superseding its efforts to support the country's fledging democracy.

At the crux of that tussle are Saleh's sons and nephews who have clung to their positions as leaders of the country's military and security apparatus. Saleh's eldest son Ahmed, commands the U.S.-funded Republican Guard while his nephews, Amar, Tariq, and Yahya remain in charge of the country's national security, Presidential guard, and counter-terrorism units. The fate of the relatives, or "the family problem," as some Yemenis call it, hangs over Hadi's presidency like a dark cloud and is testing the mettle of the fragile coalition government, itself divided between officials from Saleh's GPC ruling party and the Islamist-dominated opposition.

In addition to trying to step out of Saleh's shadow, Hadi must also attempt to heal a rift that splits the army between supporters of the Saleh family and loyalists of a powerful commander, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar. General Ahmar, once a close ally of Saleh, announced his support for the antigovernment protest movement in March taking a chunk of the army with him. The elderly military officer, a shrewd political maneuverer, has repeatedly said that he is willing to leave the country if Saleh will, though many doubt Ahmar's sincerity. Holed up in his military base in the west of the capital, the general, like most of Yemen's elites jockeying for power, is keeping his cards close to the table.

Though Yemeni politicians are pedalling the narrative of progress and new beginnings, the street-level protest movement that first rose up against the old order remain steadfast. The gap between politician and protester has never looked wider. As the U.S. ambassador and Saleh's nephew, Yahya, head of the counterterrorism unit, embraced each other like old friends in the palace, thousands of Yemenis were marching through the dusty streets of the capital rejecting the immunity clause and calling for Feierstein's resignation. "Ya ambassador, out! out! From our revolution we will not back down," roared the sea of animated young men, kicking up dust with their feet as they marched toward the U.S. embassy.

Feierstein's close involvement in the "power transfer deal" which granted immunity to Saleh and his recent televised front-row appearance at Hadi's swearing-in ceremony has made him a target for the pro-democracy enthusiasts who remain camped out in city squares across the country. A cartoon widely circulated on Yemeni facebook and twitter accounts, showing the ambassador's face photoshopped onto the body of a tribal sheikh, a military general and a smiling civilian casting a vote is only advancing the belief that it is he, not Hadi, who is the country's new de facto ruler.

"These anti-American feelings did not come out of thin air," Atiaf Al-Wazir, a prominent Yemeni researcher and blogger, told TIME. "It began with U.S. drone attacks resulting in the death of dozens of innocent civilians in the South and then was heightened by the perceived silence and weak statements of the U.S. administration against the Saleh regime. The fact that people call the U.S. ambassador 'Sheikh Feierstein' indicates that many believe he is indirectly ruling the country."

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