SANAA -- For decades, portraits of Ali Abdullah Saleh -- clinging to the walls of libraries, mosques, coffee shops, courtyards and cafeterias -- were part of the scenery in Sanaa, Yemen's grubby capital. In the space of the past month, though, the autocrat's mustachioed image has all but disappeared, hastily plastered over with glossy mug shots of a bald, solemn-looking man. The slogan underneath the portrait reads: "Together we will build a new Yemen."
For the first time in 33 years, Yemen has a new head of state. Swept into office by a controversial one-candidate vote last month, President Abd Rabu Monsour Hadi faces the difficult task of steering the country toward multi-party elections in 2014. It's a job that would require huge political skill and authority even under the best of conditions. Yet Hadi is a political lightweight, an unlikely leader chosen primarily for his inoffensiveness. In Yemen, which endured decades of civil war in the twentieth century, Hadi is the safe pair of hands, the one political leader around whom warring factions were willing to rally.
Now Yemenis will see if he can live up to the challenge. In the year prior to last month's referendum-style vote they experienced a bout of chaos that was daunting even by the standards of their tumultuous past. Yemen's version of the Arab Spring shook the establishment to its core. A bomb attack on Saleh's palace left him crippled. The armed forces splintered. An Islamist-dominated opposition took control of half the ministries in the new transitional government. And a faltering economy has left the population teetering on the verge of famine. Small wonder that many worry about the country sliding back into civil war.
Despite all the talk of democracy, elections, and unity government, Yemen remains largely under authoritarian rule, and that means that its further progress depends to a critical extent on the motives and capabilities of the man commanding its highest office. Yet the man upon whose shoulders the country's fate rests remains an enigma to most of his compatriots. Hastily catapulted from the shadows into the spotlight, this veteran army general turned politician is now in charge of ruling one of the most fractured, impoverished, and conflict-ridden nations in the world.
Ask ordinary Yemenis about him and more often than not you'll get the same lackluster response: "He was Saleh's deputy." The fact that Hadi is still defined in relation to his predecessor is hardly surprising. From the day he seized power in a military coup in 1978, it was clear that Saleh, a master of political chess, was set on running a one-man show. The position of number two was to be a ceremonial posting, a job to which Hadi, a quiet, gentle man from humble beginnings and with no major political ambitions of his own, was well-suited. A decade's worth of ribbon-snipping and dutiful photo-ops on the president's behalf earned him the nickname "Mrs. Saleh." Others call him the "statue" of Yemeni politics, never noticed but always present.