Four years ago, the Moral Guidance Department of the Yemeni Armed Forces published a three-part journal entitled: “Diary of President Ali Abdullah Saleh (1978 – 2007)”. The book contained written records of the Yemeni President’s cables, meetings and decisions during this period, and in total was more than 1,000 pages long. After spending several hours flipping through the publication, one can’t help but feel confused. For how did this Yemeni politician manage to remain at the helm of this unstable country for three consecutive decades? How did he manage to compell the Yemenis to unify via force of arms? How did he manage to ally with each party and then repeatedly clash with them without suffering a weakening of his resolve or losing control over the presidency, even after suffering serious burns in an assassination attempt? Saleh’s power is due to his infinite patience, his penchant for the policy of dividing the ranks via deception rather than direct confrontation, as well as his extraordinary ability to absorb disagreements by making deals and alliances which he quickly casts aside. However it is perhaps these same features that are his greatest weak point today.
During the previous week, President Saleh chaired a party meeting of the General People’s Congress and insisted that his Vice-President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi attend. Al-Hadi was criticized and reportedly ridiculed by some of the party’s leaderships for his inability to contain the wave of protests demanding that senior regime figures be removed from their posts and brought to trial. According to the Gulf Initiative, al-Hadi was supposed to be vested with all the powers of the president, and so he found himself in a position which clashed with the pledges he had made regarding his presidency of the transitional phase. Al-Hadi sent a number of messages to internal and external parties saying that he would stay in Aden until the president and the pillars of his regime stopped interfering in state affairs.
Of course President Saleh’s supporters in the ruling party argue that what they did was nothing more than an attempt to protect themselves after fears have been raised that they may be used as a scapegoat for the President and his family in the coming period, particularly after the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay announced that granting amnesty to perpetrators of war crimes and human rights violations – in accordance with the Yemeni presidential power transfer agreement – was in violation of international law.
Needless to say, President Saleh is back to his old tricks, putting himself in the middle between the ruling party on whose behalf he signed the agreement on the one hand and the opposition, particularly the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), on the other. Those who know the president well say he has not yet relinquished his ambition to influence the results of the transitional period. Hence, his desire to travel to New York for treatment could be interpreted as a bid to break his being pigeon-holed as a tottering dictator who is about to flee the country like Ben Al, or fall into the hands of the revolutionaries like Gaddafi.
President Saleh is still manoeuvring and scheming as usual, he assumes that the passage of time will ultimately solve his crisis or at least shape the [future] results. Even if Saleh renounces power as president, he wants to remain in the limelight as a theorist for the General People’s Congress, choosing its future leaders and endorsing future governments. However what President Saleh does not seem to realize is that his exit strategy may be compromised if his interference – or the actions of his supporters – causes the collapse of the Gulf Initiative.
The real problem with President Saleh is that he is still not convinced that his time in power is almost at an end. Therefore, his chances of being granted a safe exit dwindles each time the transitional process is hampered by a made-up excuse. In my own view, some of the president’s team are watching the developments in Syria and are thinking that the president and the ruling party are not obligated to make substantial concessions since the threat of foreign intervention has receded since last year. Hence, it is incumbent upon the Gulf States to clearly and seriously articulate that they will not allow either of the two parties to violate or impede the initiative to change the results.
There is one particular incident which reveals President Saleh’s true thinking. During the preparation stages for the unification between North and South Yemen in May 1990, Saleh’s allies put forward his name for presidency whereas the southerners proposed the name of Ali Salim al-Beidh. When both sides failed to agree on a common name, Saleh expressed his disinterest in holding this office and then cunningly suggested a reduction in the powers granted to the presidency, with the north begin granted this position and the south being offered the posts of vice president and prime minister. It seemed a fair bargain to the southerners, especially since Saleh had pledged to exile Ali Nasir Muhammad and keep his supporters at bay after the latter sought asylum in North Yemen during the mid-Eighties. However Saleh did not stop at that, he went further and pledged to share the revenues of any oil discovered in the north with the south. After accepting the deal, the southerners were surprised when Saleh unilaterally appointed 3 out of the 5 members of the transitional phase presidential council. This gave him control over the majority in the presidential council and the government. Shortly afterwards, Saleh allied with the Muslim Brotherhood to fight and exile the southern socialist leaders. After Saleh seized the reins of power, he launched several initiatives to convince them to return to Yemen, although the reins of power remained securely in his grip.
In his memoirs, Ahmed Jaber Afeef, reveals that when discord flared up between the north and the south in late-1993, a committee was formed to work toward a reconciliation agreement that would lead to a transitional government. Following deliberations which extended for several months, both sides agreed to sign the agreement under the auspices of late King Hussein of Jordan in Amman. On the day that the agreement was to be signed, 20 February, 1994, President Saleh and Ali Salim al-Beidh signed the agreement, however Saleh insisted that all other parties involved in the conflict sign as well. When it was Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar’s turn to sign the agreement, he added an additional phrase to the text of the agreement which read “on the condition that the crisis is ended and the officials return.” It was later claimed that President Saleh had convinced al-Ahmar to add these words. When both sides returned to Sanaa, the implementation of this agreement stalled on account of the handwritten addendums. (Witness to Yemen: Al-Afif Cultural Foundation 2000).
Doesn’t this incident remind us of what President Saleh’s men are doing today in terms of trying to void the agreement of its content and force the other side into submission? This attitude could lead to the collapse of the Gulf Initiative and return Yemen to a state of civil war.
No matter how cunning President Saleh might be, everything must come to an end, including presidencies. The illusion of eternal rule in republics is something that is always exposed, sooner or later. President Saleh ruled Yemen for over three decades. He made mistakes, but nobody can deny that Yemen witnessed – relative – progress on an economic and urban level during this period, nor can anybody deny that Saleh managed – with extraordinary skill – to overcome multiple economic and security challenges and also protect Yemeni unity. Nevertheless times have changed and the current period requires change. President Saleh was presented with an initiative that no other Arab president has been offered. If some of his men try to get around it today, they will be compromising his safe exit strategy. For more than three decades, President Saleh demonstrated political shrewdness and cunning. However the cleverest – and best – thing that he could do today is allow the Yemeni people to determine their own future without him.