"He's like a vase you would put on your mantelpiece," says one senior politician from Islah, Yemen's Islamist party. "It succeeds in looking nice and being part of the background at the same time."
Despite his long years as a protégé, Hadi is, in many ways, the antithesis of his former boss. Famed for his fiery, rambling, and at times incoherent speeches, Saleh, in contrast to camera-shy Hadi, exuded confidence. Indeed, the new president is known to sweat and fidget when he finds himself in public view. While Saleh's immediate family and extended clan gobbled up high-level positions and the wealth that came with them, Hadi, whether by choice or political impotence, did not install his relatives in positions of power. "They don't live a lavish lifestyle, they are very, very humble," said an official from Saleh's ruling GPC party who did not wish to be named. "He is the only senior government official about whom I haven't heard anyone complain of his embezzling or occupying land." So perhaps being Mr. Nobody could prove Hadi's greatest strength -- even with the opposition. "We are all willing to give him a chance," says Yassin Saeed Noman, leader of Yemen's Socialist Party.
One can only hope this consensus holds until the 2014 election. If that happens, it will prove a remarkable victory over Yemen's fractious legacy. As the optimists see it, it is precisely Hadi's roots that could help to heal the painful rift between the country's two former constituent halves. Hadi was born in 1945 in the village of Thukain in the heart of the rugged governorate of Abyan, then part of the former socialist republic of South Yemen (the only communist state the Middle East has ever had). Embarking on a long career in the military, he graduated at 19 from a military school in Aden before heading to Britain's Sandhurst, and then to Cairo and the Soviet Union for spells of strategic military training. He returned from the USSR in 1980, and held several posts until the South merged with North Yemen a decade later.
Yet there are many in the South -- above all the Hirak movement, now clamoring for a return to independence -- who begrudge his reputation as a unifier. Hadi was one of a handful of cherry-picked southern leaders who profited from Yemen's merger. (People from his own part of the country still refer to him as al-zumra, an Arabic word meaning "group" or "troop" that denotes those who betrayed the South to back Saleh.) When Yemen's brutal civil war broke out in 1994, Hadi threw in his lot with Saleh, serving as the minister of defense and using his intimate knowledge of his home region to help vanquish former socialist comrades in the South. "He slaughtered us in 1994, and now you are electing him as president to try and make us feel better?" asks Karim Al-Dursi, a southern activist. Mr. Hadi has said that "dialogue and only dialogue" could resolve this long-standing grudge, but something more concrete will be needed if the country is to avoid being broken into two again.
Policymakers in Washington, meanwhile, are fixated on a more specific question: How will Hadi fare in Yemen's decade-long U.S.-funded battle against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local franchise of the network founded by Osama bin-Laden?
For years Saleh pulled off a remarkable balancing act, deftly persuading U.S. officials to continue a steady flow of billions of dollars to his government coffers as support for his "war on terror." He used the cash to push back against the jihadists but also to build heavily-equipped elite army units under control of his offspring that he could use to suppress local insurrections. Though Saleh's relationship with Washington blew hot and cold, he never quite lost control. Last month, in an indication of his good standing, the U.S. government granted him permission to travel to New York for medical treatment.