x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Beating the odds in Sanaa, Saleh leaves a shattered state

Ali Abdullah Saleh may not be going out on his own terms, but he will be pleased that neither is he leaving on anyone else's.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of Yemen for the last 33 years, is staring at the end. In Riyadh last week, he signed a GCC-brokered plan to transfer power and pave the way for an election, theoretically ending his rule, in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

If Mr Saleh has the inclination to reflect, he will realise that in many ways he has beaten the odds. After all, there has not been much of a retirement plan for Yemeni presidents. His two immediate predecessors were killed - one, almost absurdly, by an exploding briefcase.

There probably isn't a better way to explain why Mr Saleh ruled the way he did without thinking about the dangers of the job. Surviving the top office in Yemen means constantly trying to stave off disaster, staying a step ahead and hoping the bill never comes due. It also means ignoring the wreckage left in your wake, and that is the final legacy he is bequeathing his country.

This wreckage is what several different power centres are sifting through and fighting around as they try to fill the enormous vacuum left by Mr Saleh. If the president is gone - and even now that remains a big "if" - the leftovers will be fought over by numerous factions: the Saleh clan, nominally led by his son, Ahmed (who also commands the elite Republican Guard); the Hashid tribe; and breakaway soldiers, led by the defecting general, Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar.

The first group, the Saleh clan, is probably the strongest at the moment but the one with the least chance of surviving. The Saleh name is toxic, and even those who supported the president have little respect for his son. Loyalty to him will be fleeting, as it is doubtful he has the courage or the temperament to lead during this next taxing phase.

If the old man is indeed leaving the stage, do not look for the heir to come out on top. Indeed, initial reports seem to indicate that army defections are speeding up.

For the most part these defectors are going to the camp of General Al Ahmar, long-time top general to Mr Saleh, who defected to the protestors' camp over the summer. This was not due to a deep desire for democratic change. Rather he saw the president as weak, perhaps terminally so, and decided it was his best opportunity to jump ship. He will have an enormous amount of firepower on his side, as well as a long bloodstained history, and a lack of hesitation when it comes to killing.

Then there is the Hashid tribal federation, Yemen's most prominent. The late patriarch of the federation was nearly equal with Mr Saleh in terms of power, and had an uneasy alliance and rivalry with him. One of the patriarch's sons, Hamid, brought the rivalry to the forefront, and in the last few months has made it a violent one. Hamid has publicly stated his support for and defence of the protestors, and probably has the best shot at winning them over.

That said, none of these parties will truly be able to capture the hearts of the people on the street, who for 10 months have been marching and dying in an attempt to force change and bring freedom to their country. They feel that their movement has been hijacked by powerful men, who differ in degree from Mr Saleh, but not by type.

The GCC deal was not for them. It was an agreement among distant and lofty politicians who merely made patronising gestures towards the street's goals. Mr Saleh has immunity, and the powerful will be fighting for their spoils, to set up their networks, and to let endemic corruption work in their favour. There will not be peace in the streets.

Another key factor is that they are essentially fighting only over Sanaa, and possibly a few of the major cities. The Houthis in the north have taken advantage of this chaos to strengthen their autonomy, and the south, already in de facto secession, will never consent to rule by another Saleh or General Al Ahmar (the latter was in charge of military operations to crush the Southern Movement, as well as against the Houthis). An already fragmented Yemen has little-to-no chance of coming together. Hamid Al Ahmar is the only one without the baggage, and has talked of reconciliation, but it is doubtful that the south will want to be ruled by Sanaa at any point in the foreseeable future.

Of course, with all this, there is the pervasive threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For the US, the loss of Mr Saleh is a short-term disaster. For all his ills, he did truly want to defeat AQAP, because AQAP truly wanted him destroyed. In that sense the US has lost an ally. But the only real, long-lasting ally to the US in Yemen is stability, and this is where it has a chance to achieve a long-term victory.

To be sure, Mr Saleh's absence leaves things in a dangerous flux, and it is one that AQAP has, and will continue to, exploit. But Mr Saleh's presence was the chief cause of instability. Right now the US has a chance to get on the side of democracy, and to win back the people of Yemen.

There is, clearly, one major caveat. Mr Saleh signed a deal requiring him to leave office in 30 days. For a man like him that is a gift, one that gives him breathing room. There is little doubt that somewhere in his mind he is figuring out a way to stay, to wriggle out of this jam, as he has done so many times in the past. Muammar Qaddafi in Libya is a cautionary tale Mr Saleh has interest in learning from.

Mr Saleh is not going out on his terms, but he is not going out on his enemies' terms either. He saw to that. They didn't kill him. He may have left his country a chaotic wreck, but he left it standing up. For a man who placed survival over everything, that is a victory. It doesn't matter to him that he is the only one to enjoy it.


Brian O'Neill is a former writer and editor for the Yemen Observer. He is currently an independent analyst in Chicago