Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi named his chief of staff as prime minister Tuesday in a move that could see rebels withdraw from Sanaa two weeks after they overran it.
The presidential decree naming Ahmed Awad Mubarak came after Hadi met his advisers — including a rebel representative — and agreed on the nomination, the official Saba news agency reported.
The Shiite rebels, known as Huthis from the name of their leading family, stormed into Sanaa in a lightning offensive on September 21 and proceeded to establish a strong military presence, mounting patrols and manning checkpoints.
Tuesday’s nomination came two weeks later than it should have done under a ceasefire deal sponsored by the United Nations that also provides for the withdrawal of the rebels from Sanaa, their disarmament and revitalisation of the political transition.
The insurgents have refused to pull out of the city despite the deal to give them more influence with the Sunni-dominated government.
The UN deal called for the Huthis to withdraw from Sanaa once a new neutral premier was named.
“He seems to enjoy the confidence of President Hadi and does not appear to have been rejected by the rebel representatives and other political forces,” a senior Yemeni official said of Mubarak, speaking on condition of anonymity.
– Difficult task ahead –
He was also presidential emissary to the rebels during talks that led to the September 21 truce.
Mubarak now has the difficult task, along with Hadi, of trying to restore government authority in negotiating a rebel withdrawal from Sanaa.
In addition to bringing normal business activity to a halt, the rebel presence in the city has exasperated residents.
Twice since the takeover they have gone onto the streets to demand that the rebels leave Sanaa.
Mubarak replaces Mohamed Basindawa, whose team was accused of corruption by the Shiite rebels.
His departure was one of the rebels’ main demands as they advanced on the capital.
When they swept into the city, the insurgents also seized large quantities of weapons from the army.
The rebels are now believed to be trying to expand their influence eastwards to the country’s main oilfields and southwest towards the Red Sea.
Mubarak has been Hadi’s chief of staff for several months. He was also secretary general of the national dialogue on Yemen’s political transition.
– Southern Movement delegate –
Born in the southern port of Aden, Mubarak was one of the representatives in the dialogue of the Southern Movement, which seeks autonomy or secession for the formerly independent south.
The Huthis, who complain of marginalisation by the authorities in Sanaa, are concentrated in the northern highlands where Shiites are a majority in otherwise Sunni-majority Yemen.
Last month’s rapidly moving developments have added to instability in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation since a bloody 2011 uprising forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.
They also threaten an already volatile region, with the Sunni-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council saying on October 1 that it “will not stand idly by in the face of factional foreign intervention”, a reference to Iran’s alleged backing for the Huthis.
In addition to the Huthis swooping south from their Saada stronghold in the far north, the central authorities have also had to deal with southern secessionist aspirations and a bloody campaign by the country’s Al-Qaeda franchise.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is considered by the United States to be the deadliest branch of the extremist network.
AQAP fighters have repeatedly targeted the security forces and have themselves been subject to repeated attack by US drones.
Al-Qaeda has also vowed to fight the Huthi rebels in defence of Sunni Muslims.
“We have unsheathed our sharp swords to defend you,” an AQAP statement said last month after the takeover of Sanaa, warning the Shiite insurgents of the “unbearable”.
“Your heads will fly off,” it threatened them, charging that the takeover of Sanaa was the “outcome of a Persian plot in Yemen”.