Yemen’s Saleh Following in Mubarak’s Footsteps

Yemen’s president may not have the same persona as Hosni Mubarak but his career is winding down the same road.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, 2010 (Presidency of Yemen)
President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, 2010 (Presidency of Yemen)

If you thought Ali Abdullah Saleh was on the ropes when he had just the Yemeni demonstrators to deal with, think again. The United States, Saleh’s most important financial and military donor outside of Saudi Arabia, are now edging ever closer to the opposition. And if rumors are correct, Obama Administration officials are in modest talks with the Yemeni government and the political opposition to ease Saleh out of power, for good.

Although Yemen is distinct from other Arab states (tribes are vastly more important than the central government and the state is riddled with weapons), one cannot help but compare this latest shift in American policy to the hasty response during the Egyptian protests two months ago.

Ali Saleh, like Hosni Mubarak, is a man who sat in the presidential palace for over three decades, manipulating his country’s politics by exploiting tribal fissures within his own society. Saleh, like Mubarak, is (or was) a pro-Western Arab autocrat, allowing Washington to conduct airstrikes and counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in military reimbursements. Saleh’s son, Ahmed, holds a prestigious position in the Yemeni government, serving as the commander of the Republican Guard. Mubarak’s oldest son Gamal was a top official in the National Democratic Party, planning policy for the group and ushering in economic reforms to benefit Egypt’s new entrepreneurial class.

But perhaps the most obvious parallel between the Egypt and Yemen scenarios is the way Washington has been forced to deal with both crises — quickly, and without time for a full assessment of America’s goals and what it seeks to accomplish.

Days after the political unrest began in central Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all but dismissed them as a minor nuisance to Mubarak’s “stable” regime. Vice President Joseph Biden went one step further by refusing to call Mubarak a dictator, despite the thousands of political dissidents who were rounded up and jailed before the demonstrations grew into a formidable power in Egyptian society. It was only when Mubarak’s lame concessions were refused by the millions of protesters in Egypt’s cities that the White House reassessed its strategy. The result was the resignation of an American ally.

The situation in Yemen is not exact, but it is reminiscent of at least a partial déjà-vu.

A month and a half ago, American officials were quite confident that Saleh could weather the storm and maintain his grip on power. After all, he had done it before, first during the country’s unification in 1990 and then during Yemen’s brief civil war in 1994. The tribes, which have long been the backbone of Yemeni politics, were consistently bought off by Saleh’s inner circle in return for loyalty to the regime and tentative peace in the countryside. The sixty something-year old politician also discovered a way, like Mubarak, to plead for American assistance, giving his government the revenue needed to sustain operations by paying off its soldiers, tribesmen and clerics.

Yet that arrangement seems to be all but over. According to this New York Times story, the United States decided to stop backing Saleh once he entered negotiations with the opposition. A possible transfer of power agreement, whereby Saleh would step down in exchange for immunity, is now in the works and sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

It’s far more plausible to suspect that the United States threw in the towel with Saleh weeks ago, when Yemeni security services and government loyalists killed over fifty protesters in the capital. Not to mention that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most important issue for the United States in Yemen, has been taking advantage of the government turmoil by stepping up attacks in the south and reportedly capturing several small towns in the southeast. Combine these two elements and it becomes quite clear that Saleh has lost all of his value.

The costs of backing a tepid counterterrorism partner have now outweighed the benefits of being connected or associated with a regime that is fractured and unable to provide the most basic public services for its own citizens.

Nobody wants to back a government that indiscriminately kills fifty of its citizens in cold blood in a single day. Now the United States, Yemen’s most strategic non-Arab ally, is among that growing list.

For more opinions on the evolving situation in Yemen, check out expert Gregory Johnson’s blog and Dexter Filkin’s article in last week’s issue of The New Yorker.