This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 30/05/2011
The Yemeni president wasted several opportunities to leave power safely, respectably and differently to the Arab presidents who confronted, or still are confronting, the regional political earthquake in their own states. When Saleh declared that he would not “reset the clock,” he was in the position to announce that the elections would be brought forward this year, to hand over the reins of power without any mediation and to leave power in a different way to Benali and Mubarak. But as usual, Saleh decided to manoeuvre.
Here we have the president throwing away the Gulf initiative – an initiative which serves as a lifeline to Yemen and the president himself – despite all the sudden changes made to it in response to his impossible demands, and he is forgetting that he is now alone and nobody is by his side anymore. The Gulf initiative is an initiative of all the GCC states and it is backed by the Europeans and the Americans; this means that Saleh no longer has any international support, which makes it difficult for him to rule Yemen, especially as the other Arab regimes that President Saleh could turn to for help in order to bypass the Gulf and the West, such as Gaddafi's Libya or Syria, are not able to help themselves let alone Yemen. Internally everybody has broken away Saleh; we have Sheikh al Ahmar pledging that he will force Saleh out of the country empty handed, and Saleh himself can see that weapons will not protect him, as his opponents were able to occupy key government buildings in Sanaa very easily. So what more does the president need to be convinced that leaving power respectably is the best solution?
It is very strange that the Yemeni President has all these opportunities to leave power respectably but chooses to pursue a dead end and to try all of his tricks. The strangest of these was when he recently resorted to seating the editor-in-chief of a Saudi newspaper next to him during one of his speeches. The president began talking to him as if suggesting to his opponents that Saudi Arabia has taken a different position to the rest of the Gulf states by having a man in Saudi attire sitting next to him during his speech to the protesters. Of course this became a joke among the Saudis themselves before the Yemenis!
What is odd about the political earthquake in our region today is that few have learned from what is happening around them as we watch the regimes in Syria, Libya and Yemen still refusing to take in what is happening. The common denominator between Tunisia's Benali, Egypt's Mubarak, Syria, Libya and Yemen is that they all delayed in proposing solutions. Of course we cannot attribute it solely to obstinacy; rather it is because most of them are detached from the reality of what is happening on the streets. Allow me to relay a story here that will tell us a great deal; when Mubarak announced that he would not run in the presidential elections during the January 25 revolution, one of his visitors asked him, “who will run instead of you Mr. President?” Mubarak said, “Omar Suleiman.” The guest said, “Do you expect him to win?” to which Mubarak replied, “Yes, easily!” Are these the words of someone who is aware of what is happening outside of his palace? Of course not!
What the Yemeni president does not want to realize is that he has run out of tricks and that the number of his supporters is declining. He did not come out last Friday. Is it conceivable that after over decades in power Saleh wants to reach the stage where he uses an audio recording, like Gaddafi, in order to say that he lives in the hearts of millions? How sad indeed!