Yemen’s former president holds down his fort

In 1978, after 12 days of secret meetings in the presidential retreat of Camp David in the U.S., President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel signed two agreements that paved the way for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of the following year. Back then, Tunisia was ruled by the charismatic Habib Bourguiba, the country’s first president and in Iran massive protests against the Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi were the prelude to the revolution. It was also the year Ali Abdullah Saleh became the president of North Yemen.

Thirty four years later, when Saleh was injured by a bomb explosion inside his presidential compound during the Yemen uprisings, it was reasonable to assume that at the very least that would be it for his long political career. After receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia and the U.S., Saleh bowed to internal and external pressure upon his return to Yemen. He endorsed the transition plan of November 2011, backed by the GCC, that involved a transfer of power to his Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Long spell in power

The legacy of Saleh’s long spell in power, during which he developed a complex network of patronage, is proving difficult to overcome. The opening in 2013 of a museum in al-Saleh mosque in Sanaa themed around his rule might seem irrelevant, but it is hard to imagine former presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia managing to do the same a little more than a year after being deposed.

The legacy of Saleh’s long spell in power, during which he developed a complex network of patronage, is proving difficult to overcome

Manuel Almeida

Fear was widespread that Saleh and his cohort were working to undermine Hadi’s government. Tensions within the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and a split between the pro-Saleh and pro-Hadi wings soon became evident. Those fears were vindicated last September when the revivalist Zaydi group Ansar Allah (or the Houthis) took control of capital Sanaa. There are indications that pro-Saleh elements in the security forces and the military facilitated the Houthi offensive.

Following the Houthi offensive, the U.N. Security Council last November confirmed targeted sanctions on Saleh for engaging in actions that threaten to undermine Yemen’s peace, security and political transition. The sanctions, which also targeted Houthi military leaders Abd al-Khaliq al-Huthi and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim, imposed a global travel ban and an asset freeze.

Before the sanctions were confirmed, the GPC had already issued a statement condemning the possibility and warning about the negative consequences sanctions on Saleh could have on the political process. A day after sanctions were confirmed, Saleh announced he was pulling his party from the new unity government and the GPC voted to dismiss President Hadi as party’s secretary-general for allegedly calling on the sanctions.

Past tense

“I am past tense,” Saleh said in an entertaining interview soon after these events. When asked if he was still an important figure, he retorted: “I used to be, I think, at the time when I was a ruler. But afterwards do I still have such importance? Who knows?” The question many in Yemen are now asking is what Saleh really wants. Despite the sway he still holds, a return to power seems an unlikely scenario given the level of opposition he would face internally and outside Yemen, especially among Yemen’s main financial supporters.

A likelier possibility is that, under the current climate of instability and violence, only by retaining influence will Saleh be able to ensure protection for himself and those close to him and their privileges. He is a proud Yemeni and he lacks a real incentive to leave. Journalists who have visited him in his highly secured residence invariably report the constant presence of GPC officials and tribal leaders.

While in power, Saleh installed many family members in relevant positions within the military and security apparatus. Many of them were removed during the latest military reforms aiming to make the army more professional and efficient and rid it of the many tribal, family and political influences.

One of Saleh’s family members in particular, his eldest son General Ahmed Ali (former commander of the powerful Republican Guard), is the one most likely to follow in his footsteps. He left the army only to be named Yemen’s ambassador to the UAE.

Crucially under the political transition agreement, nothing prevents Saleh or his son Ahmed from being politically active or from participating in a future election. Whether or not Yemenis choose a return to the not-so-happy recent past is another story.

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:44 - GMT 06:44
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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