Yemen’s Saleh Wants to Come Back Home

The embattled Yemeni president pledges to return to his country soon.

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

It has been a little over two months since Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was nearly killed. On June 3, shelling from tribal forces in residential neighborhods of the capital Sana’a hit the presidential palace’s mosque just as he and a number of government allies were praying there. The mortar attack killed a few of Saleh’s elite Republican Guard troops, injured several of the highest officials in his ruling National Congress Party, including the prime minister, and came close to ending Saleh’s own life. His face was burned and shrapnel was lodged close to his heart, enough to have him whisked off to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

Government spokesmen have issued multiple statements on Saleh’s health — so many that it is difficult to determine which ones are accurate and which ones are being used for propaganda purposes. But Saleh put an end to the confusion over his fate on August 16, when he released a videotaped speech to his tribal supporters claiming that his health was improving by the day and vowing to return to his native Yemen. In the same speech, he vowed not to resign amid threats of threats, violence and inflammatory rhetoric — even as he deployed those very tactics to subdue his opponents.

We must discuss all the available data, all the events in Yemen, and how to get our country out of the crisis. The crisis which was fabricated by some political forces to reach power. We welcome the opposition and tell them that you can reach power through ballot boxes, not through coups, statements, denunciation, insults or irresponsible speeches.

The speech is the epitome of what Saleh has represented for the past 33 years — a shrewd political survivor and manipulator. He knows how to get under the skin of his rivals, when to use threats and when to act like a consoling figure willing to reach out to his opposition. This is the same talent that fooled the Yemeni opposition, his Arab Gulf neighbors and the United States not once or twice but three times, when Saleh reneged on signing a Gulf Cooperation Council deal that would have transferred power over to his deputy within a month.

With Saleh nursing his wounds in Riyadh, responsibility for quelling the protests and hostile anti-government tribes fell to his son, Ahmed, and his oldest nephew, Yahya. The preeminent security institutions in Yemen are under the control of Saleh’s close relatives, assuring that defections from elite units will be kept to a minimum.

The ploy has worked good enough, so far. Downtown Sana’a is still full of Saleh loyalists and has been used as a sanctuary to rain rockets and shells on tribal strongholds in the capital’s periphery. Yet in a society as fragmented and armed as Yemen’s, central Sana’a is where Saleh’s influence runs out. The Hashid confederation, led by the influential Sadiq and Hamid al-Ahmar, is in no way deterred by the Republican Guard’s many attacks. In their eyes, they see the Guard maneuver as an act of desperation and a tacit admission that the influence of Saleh’s government is bottled up in the central corridors of the capital.

Southern Yemen is a rather different story. While street battles and demonstrations are as frequent there as in other parts of the country, the revolt in the southern mountains has a dangerous extremist dimension that caught the United States and its Yemeni counterterrorism partners off guard.

Militants thought to be affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have seized Zanjibar, the capital of Abyan Province, and held on to their territory despite repeated campaigns by the Yemeni army and air force to scatter them. Government troops report militant casualties every day yet the balance of power on the ground is still the same as it was a month ago. Yemeni soldiers situated in the southern end of the peninsula have increasingly been prime targets for militant attacks, including a suicide bombing along a checkpoint last week that killed eight troops. American drone aircraft have picked up the slack, bombing suspected terrorist positions and relieving some of the stress that the Yemeni army has had to deal with.

Saleh’s return is still questionable. If Saudi Arabia were smart, they would “convince” the Yemeni president to join his Tunisian counterpart on permanent vacation in the kingdom, sparing Yemeni civilians an even greater amount of violence were he to return. Regrettably, even this prescription would not dampen the bullets from firing in the direction of anti-government forces, as Saleh’s son and nephews could easily use Yemen’s security establishment to kill off any political transition.

The United States are is once again left with few options — a testament to how versatile and people driven the Arab revolutions have become.