A soldier scans with binoculars as he stands near a poster of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Photograph: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Why President Saleh Returned To Yemen
It took many by surprise, but Saleh's decision to rejoin the political fray at this time says much about the state of the region
By James Spencer
President Ali Abdullah Saleh has returned to Yemen after three months of convalescence in Saudi Arabia. He sneaked back without fanfare or prior announcement in the early hours of 23 September. Diplomats and even senior members of his own party were caught by surprise. Many are wondering what it means, and why he has come back now.
This may have been his first opportunity, medically speaking, to return. Until his meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia last week, Saleh had been wearing medical sheaths over his hands – presumably as a result of the burns sustained in the attack on his presidential palace last June. His recovery since the attack has been clearly visible.
Saleh's medical progress has also paralleled the recent upturn in youth demonstrations across Yemen – and brutal attempts to suppress them. While the National Council of Revolutionary Forces had announced an intention to escalate its protests, there have been suggestions that the increased activity was partly instigated by Saleh's henchman-turned-rival, Ali Muhsin, the powerful general who has aligned himself with the street protesters.
The youth movement's increasing assertiveness also coincides with a surge in tribal activity. It is entirely possible that this was a last-ditch attempt to bump the president's sons and nephews from the luxurious palaces in which they are ensconced and so forestall the president's return.
While the west focuses almost exclusively on al-Qaida activity in Yemen, Saleh is unconcerned by much of it – indeed, there is good evidence that he has orchestrated at least part of it and can probably bring it back under control reasonably easily.
It is possible, though, that Saleh became concerned that the brutality that his eldest son Ahmed used to break up the peaceful protest march towards the main presidential palace was stripping away any remaining shred of democratic "legitimacy" from his kleptocratic, clannish regime: the 18 March attacks had already caused a major domestic schism, and unexpectedly severe foreign condemnation.
The president's return, and reassumption of his presidential powers, may also be part of his strategy for prolonging the ineffectual dialogue with the political opposition, brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). The president will doubtless continue to delay and obfuscate: beginning negotiations over again, or insisting on unacceptable preconditions. The call for elections, in his speech on Sunday, fits this pattern exactly.
But it is still strange that Saleh should need to return physically, since his absence insulated him from immediate political pressure. It may be, however, that he sees more political advantage in returning to the fray – judging that this is a particularly opportune moment to re-insert himself into Yemeni politics and positioning himself as the only one who can restore order.
While it is unlikely the recent butchery of demonstrators will bring a cascade of defections from the regime (as happened in March), it has almost certainly killed any hopes that Ahmed or the president's nephew Yahya would be kept on as counter-terrorist commanders at US urging. (The idea that either of them is irreplaceable verges on the ludicrous: Ahmed flunked out of not one but two military academies.)
If Saleh and his cronies are to enjoy a peaceful and prosperous retirement, they need to ensure that they hand over power to others equally steeped in crimes against Yemenis. The extent of immunity from prosecution in the GCC transition plan has yet to be defined: some regime underlings will not be covered by it.
The fact that the Saudis allowed Saleh to return is equally significant. Previous reports stated that the lavishness of the palace in which Saleh recuperated was to encourage him to stay: the Saudis have a long history of hosting dissident or exiled politicians to menace or reward neighbouring countries.
Allowing him to return suggests that the Saudis are concerned about the situation in Yemen, and would rather someone control part of it than no one control any of it. If so, it is likely that the Arab League and GCC will continue to avoid examining or acting on Yemeni issues, to the youth movement's fury.
Saleh's return also suggests that the Saudis do not have an alternative candidate to succeed him, on whom all factions of the royal family agree. While the Saudis do not want chaos on their border, they do not want too stable a Yemen either: its demographics threaten the kingdom, as does its democratic potential. Saleh thus represents the Saudis' least worst option.
This puts Saudi Arabia in a similar position to the west (although the west's concern is solely a short-term, counter-terrorist one). Both of these key external parties might be willing to settle once again for Saleh, especially if he is able to restore some modicum of public order or demonstrate a counter-terrorist effect.
Where the two differ is that whereas a democratic candidate (of whom there are several in the diaspora) might serve the west's needs better than another strong man, the Saudi royals regard a genuinely elected leader of Yemen as threatening their own rule.
While the president may have initially believed that he could sit out the protests, pressure has built over the last few weeks. In the event that it turns to civil war, Saleh is now on hand to take charge of his forces in what bodes to be a catastrophic finale to his presidency.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 28/09/2011- James Spencer is a retired infantry commander who specialised in low intensity conflict. He is a strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen