What Made Yemen’s Saleh Quit?

The president agreed to relinquish power after breaking earlier promises to consider stepping down. What changed his mind?

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

The man who once described ruling Yemen as “dancing on the heads of snakes” has been bitten by the wrath of his own people.

Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to transfer power to his vice president on Wednesday in exchange for an immunity arrangement that will save himself and his family from facing trial for the killing of Yemeni protesters.

The veteran Yemeni president had promised to relinquish power several times before this year only to backpedal from agreements at the last minute.

The country meanwhile, already among the most impoverished in the Middle East, is at a delicate standstill between a regime that refuses to make any concessions and a grassroots protest movement that has laid siege to the streets of the capital city since for nearly ten months.

Yemen’s demonstration committee estimates that at least 1,000 civilians have died from pitched battles with Saleh’s security forces while hundreds of others were probably killed outside the protest zone in skirmishes between the country’s most powerful tribal confederation and remnants of Saleh’s Republican Guards unit.

The Yemeni army has been stretched thin across the country by the protests, making it difficult for the armed forces to simultaneously combat the separatist threat in the central south of the country where Al Qaeda has established a presence.

Pressure from months of protests and an assassination plot couldn’t make Saleh consider his neighboring states’ peace plan so what changed?

The exhaustion and depletion of the armed forces, an institution that is fighting deserting military units, tribes, separatists and Al Qaeda militants all at once, would be the most logical conclusion. A United Nations Security Council resolution that embarrassed Yemen s government for all of the world to see last month may have also had a role in Saleh’s sudden determination to quit.

The final nail in the coffin may well have been how the Security Council resolution was passed — unanimously, without any objection from permanent council members like China and Russia that have otherwise resisted Western initiatives at the UN.

Saleh, once an American ally, evolved into a man that was more isolated diplomatically than Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has to date retained the lukewarm support of Beijing and Moscow. Indeed, it is difficult to find anyone alive today who was still standing by Saleh’s side as his country deteriorated into anarchy. Most of his countrymen want him detained and tried for war crimes for the excessive force that has been deployed against them since February. Once allies were turned off by his arrogance and dictatorial attitude.

Given Saleh’s wily personality and survival skills, he might try to draw out the implementation phase of the Gulf Cooperation Council proposal, only to make sure that his sons and nephews hold on to their positions in the military and security forces. He has, after all, performed circus tricks before when he decided to backtrack on the power transition a total of three times. This time, the feeling in the air is different. Ten months of excruciating stress, a near-death experience, a three month exile to Saudi Arabia and the loss of his closest friends seems to have weighed the strongman down to the point of capitulation.

This is not the end for Yemen. The country faces problems that together resemble a combustible flame. Saleh left in his wake a nation that, hope aside, has been ruined diplomatically, financially and politically. Yemen is awash in guns but running out of oil and water.

Saleh may be gone, but his relatives are still sitting comfortably behind their desks. Other elements of Yemen’s elite may find it wise to draw up plans of their own in the hopes of grabbing some power themselves. Vice president Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi, used to sitting in the background, is now thrust in the spotlight of international affairs. In the meantime, the government and the opposition must find enough common ground to rebuild a transitional government before presidential elections can take place months down the road.