x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Saleh's return can only harm Yemen

Yemen had plenty of problems before President Saleh came home, and now it has more problems.

In his homecoming speech on Sunday, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised to sign the GCC initiative on transferring power; he promised to cede power to his vice president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, within 30 days of signing the deal; and he promised to rescue Yemen from "this dangerous impasse". Mr Saleh's promises, however, are not worth very much these days.

To be sure, the situation in Yemen is worsening. In a country already overrun with small arms, reports indicate the weapons trade is flourishing. Chronic instability in the tribal regions, and inroads by extremist groups, have made the country almost ungovernable. The economy is nearing a humanitarian crisis. But the return of Mr Saleh, who has become the focal point for anger about Yemen's myriad problems, only makes the situation more dangerous.

The framework of the GCC initiative, which proposes a transitional national unity government, may be the only way forward, although envoys left Yemen empty-handed on Tuesday. Mr Saleh has promised to sign it - but reneged - at least three times. In May, gunmen connected to Mr Saleh took hostages at the UAE embassy, causing a diplomatic rupture.

What Mr Saleh hopes to achieve by returning is difficult to understand. He must realise that he cannot continue to govern. Protesters have dug in on the streets of Sanaa for a long siege; anti-regime tribal forces conduct regular raids on government forces, most recently overrunning a Republican Guard outpost north of the capital. There will be no mediated peace while Mr Saleh remains the focus of so much opposition.

Initially there was speculation that all of Mr Saleh's promises, including to step down earlier in the year, were stalling tactics so that he could last out his term that ends in 2013. That year, his eldest son Ahmed Saleh, the leader of the Republican Guard, will turn 40, the minimum age to run for the presidency. There is still some support, particularly within the security apparatus, for an offshoot of the Saleh regime.

That would mean a two-year power struggle, at the least, and more blood. The irony is that among Mr Saleh's many promises have been some good ideas: devolving power, a timetable for elections and a fixed date for his resignation. What is abundantly clear is that he cannot be relied on to implement these on his own. And as he called for a ceasefire on Sunday, it was clear that he was a poor advocate for peace.