Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi resigned today, throwing the country into chaos and raising questions about who is now in charge. Earlier in the day, Hadi's cabinet and prime minister resigned, saying they did not want to be "party to what is going on and what will happen."
With his government in tatters, Hadi had little choice but to step down. Gunmen loyal to the Huthi movement, a local Zaydi militia group, had surrounded his residence and forced him to capitulate to many of their demands after overrunning government installations throughout the capital earlier in the week.
Hadi's desperate move is an attempt to call what he hopes is a Huthi bluff. By stepping down he is hoping that the Huthi movement, led by 33-year-old Abd al-Malik al-Huthi, will overplay its hand and that its alliance of convenience with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh will fracture. But it could also set off a chain reaction that leads to the dissolution of Yemen as it is currently configured.
Huthi spokesmen on al-Jazeera television have suggested that the movement will name a presidential council to take control of what is left of the government. But any such Huthi move toward a consolidation of political power in Sanaa, will likely be met with opposition in the south of the country. Already there are reports from local television in the southern port city of Aden, which has long desired secession, that orders from Sanaa are to be disregarded.
Both the United States and Saudi Arabia, Yemen's powerful neighbor to the north, are opposed to a Huthi takeover, as both countries view the movement to be Iranian-backed. Yemen's government is heavily dependent upon foreign aid, particularly from Saudi Arabia which has helped stabilize the currency in recent years. If the Huthis make good on their pledge to form a ruling council, Saudi Arabia will likely withdraw its aid, one Yemeni government official told BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity.
"There will be a flight of capital," the official said.
Hadi came to power in February 2012, as part of a U.S.- and U.N.-backed deal that gave longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity in exchange for stepping down from power. Hadi's initial term was supposed to last two years, but that was extended in February 2014. However, throughout his nearly three years in office, Hadi has refused to name a vice president, which means that, according to the current constitution, power should be transferred to the speaker of parliament, Yahya al-Rai'i.
But there are problems with this as well. Yemen hasn't had a parliamentary election since 2003. There was supposed to be one in 2009, but that was postponed until 2011. The one in 2011 was postponed until 2014, and that one has now been postponed indefinitely. All of this means that al-Rai'i, who took over the speaker's position after its initial holder died in 2007, has as tenuous a claim to power as anyone. Indeed, the current constitution is due to replaced by a new one, which was being debated before Hadi abruptly resigned.
Beside the fears of southern secession and a potential comeback by former President Saleh, who was recently sanctioned by the U.N. for his role in undermining Hadi's government, many are worried about what the current breakdown in Yemen will mean for ongoing U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP as the branch in Yemen is known, is an obvious beneficiary from the political chaos in Sanaa. Following Saleh's removal in 2012, the U.S. invested heavily in restructuring the military. Many of those changes have not yet been fully implemented, which means that the U.S. is now operating without a military ally on the ground in Yemen. And, as more regions drift out of the orbit of Sanaa, AQAP will likely attempt to exploit the situation by seizing as much territory as it can. Indeed, that is what much of Yemen has become: a land grab for any group strong enough to hold what it claims.