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Opinion: The Curse of Ali Abdullah Saleh | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012 when he formally handed over power to his deputy. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the ouster of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, I visited Yemen twice, with my last visit coming just over three months ago.

During those visits I always noticed his old pictures, still hanging in Sana’a, though some had been ripped up and damaged, others their colors faded with age. Months passed following his departure from power, and yet during a short walk through the Old City in Sana’a you would still be able see those old pictures, obstinately refusing to go away.

Like the colors in those pictures, Saleh’s power may have faded somewhat, but he remains, as they do, “stuck on the walls,” so to speak, for despite being ousted in 2011 after 33 years in power, his influence remains. I don’t think it would be too much to say that Saleh is the person most responsible for this current dangerous moment in the country’s history.

Saleh remained in Yemen following his ouster in 2011, and the political road map laid for the country did not stipulate that he be tried in court. So he stayed, and continued to pursue his activities in the political and security spheres, as well as appearing regularly in the media, offering stinging critiques of the political power in the country which filled the vacuum his departure had created—as though he had not had a hand in the problems that he was lambasting the new government and president for failing to solve.

In recent leaked audio recordings of Saleh, we can hear him inciting some of those military and security leaders still loyal to him against the Yemeni people, whom he also insults during the recordings. We can also hear him vowing to “destroy everything beautiful” in the country. I think the only appropriate response to such comments would be one of concern and anger—though also ridicule: for Saleh did not leave much in the country during his 33 years in power for him to destroy now, whether beautiful or not (this is nowhere more evident than in the following example: after an attempt on his life three years ago, Yemen’s president was not able to find any adequate medical care in the country and had to go and seek treatment abroad). All of this proves that the man did nothing in those three awful decades in charge of the country except consistently hoard its wealth—billions of dollars of it, if we are to believe some of the estimates—for himself, despite his people being among the poorest and neediest in the world today.

The recent coup in Yemen, staged by the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi movement, could not have taken place without Saleh’s assistance and support. We see proof of this—again—in leaked recordings and in the way some of the country’s army and security services still loyal to him so openly aided the advance of Houthi militias across Yemen and refused to protect the country’s legitimate and internationally recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This involvement was at its most obvious, and brazen, when Houthi militias attacked Aden in the last few days.

Hundreds of thousands died during the six armed conflicts Saleh waged against the Houthis during his three decades in power, but this did not stop him from putting his bloody hands in theirs after he had lost power, all in a desperate bid to gain it back and diminish that of Hadi’s, whose authority was already weak and fragile.

In the end it seems that Saleh’s recent actions are nothing but an act of revenge against the Yemeni people who so bravely overthrew him in 2011. Among those targeted by him for special treatment are some major tribal families like the Al Ahmar, who had such an instrumental hand in mobilizing mass protests against his rule.

Everything that has happened in the country since last year clearly shows him as seeking to drive the country into the abyss. “Destroy everything beautiful,” he tells those military leaders in the recordings. No more fitting tribute for the man could be found.

Yemen is at the edge of a dangerous precipice. If the regional players have any power left to help the situation in the country, they must first and foremost make sure that when Yemen finally turns a new page, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s name is nowhere to be seen.