x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Saleh's survival skills keep him in power still

Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is re-defining 'survivor' as he holds on despite a tide of protest, outmanoeuvring his opponents and bringing onside powerful tribal leaders by giving them millions of dollars and 40,000 weapons that included pistols, machine guns and bazookas.

Protesters in Sana'a yesterday, as weeks of demonstrations continue.
Protesters in Sana'a yesterday, as weeks of demonstrations continue.

After a tumultuous week that many predicted would bring the political end of Ali Abdullah Saleh, it is his opponents who are reeling while Mr Saleh is still the president of Yemen.

Just four days ago, protest leaders said they would march all the way to his bedroom in the presidential palace to secure his resignation. For weeks prior, their confidence had been boosted by high-level defections from Mr Saleh inner circle of military and political allies. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets, where they were reinforced by tanks and military troops, while parts of five Yemeni provinces fell to local anti-government forces. Change, it seemed, was on the way.

But now, after three days of non-stop negotiations on the terms of his departure, opposition forces have been left empty-handed, and many have lost all hope that Mr Saleh will step down any time soon. Through a mix of subterfuge, largesse and political hardball, Mr Saleh has withstood the charge of pro-reform protesters, at least for now, and along the way displayed the survival skills that have kept him in power since 1978.

Last week, Mr Saleh, 69, agreed to hand over his powers to "safe hands" and later said this could be his vice president. A senior presidential official, however, said the reason Mr Saleh made this offer, and joined subsequent talks aimed at a peaceful transfer of power, was to gauge the strength of his opponents.

"Saleh saw that the opposition was willing to give anything in return for him stepping down. This proved to him that the opposition was not as strong as thought," the official said.

Sensing an opening, Mr Saleh then revealed his intentions to thousands of his followers, saying at a gathering yesterday in Sana'a "I will not give any more concessions to the opposition in the future." He also met thousands of tribesmen to seek their support. In the past week alone, the government gave powerful tribal leaders millions of dollars and 40,000 weapons that included pistols, machine guns and bazookas, according to a defence ministry official, who claimed that Mr Saleh was able to secure the loyalty of some of the fiercest tribes in the country. "Tribes are more trained than the military when it comes to war tactics," said the defence official. "Saleh has met with tribal leader 18 times over the past two weeks."

Meanwhile, opposition leaders are blaming the US and European nations for buying Mr Saleh more time by conducting useless negotiations.

Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman of Joint Meeting Parties, a six-party opposition coalition, put it bluntly: "The reason for the delay of Saleh's fall was the ambassadors of the US and UK. They bought him negotiating time and this is hurting the revolution."

The stance of long-time ally Washington on the Yemen crises has also helped Mr Saleh stay in power. US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said this week that the US is worried that the fall of the Saleh would hurt anti-terror efforts and the US war on al Qa'eda.

Analysts believe this is Mr Saleh's biggest bargaining chip, and could even ensure that he continues to rule for months to come.

Adnan Ismael, a regional expert on Islamic militant groups, said: "The fears the US has of Yemen becoming a hub for extremist has worked for Saleh's benefit. The president is hoping that the al Qa'eda file could prolong his stay in power and force protesters to give up and go home."

Other sources seemed to reinforce this thinking; a WikiLeaks document stated the US worried as long ago as 2005 that extremists groups could control Yemen if Mr Saleh was replaced. The document mentioned General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar as one of the US administrations biggest fears. Today, General Mohsen has become one of the most powerful forces behind the anti-government movement.

Mr Saleh has played on such fears, blaming the opposition for co-operating with militants and standing behind their capture this week of substantial parts of five Yemeni provinces.

"The opposition, with the support of terrorists, was behind the fall of districts in Saada, Mareb, Abyan, Jawf, and Shabwa provinces. These districts are now run by al Qa'eda and Islamic militants," Mr Saleh said.

To add to the opposition's image problems, the youth-led movement has yet to unite on a candidate to take Mr Saleh's place.

Youth activist Najeeb Yafa'ee said: "Youth have the right to demand change, but they are not coming up with options on who will take Saleh's seat if he steps down."

Perhaps aware of this lack of leadership, Mr Saleh mentions in every speech that he is the constitutionally mandated president and reached power by fair and democratic elections.

This has made many reconsider their stance, especially when Mr Saleh has already vowed to step down in the end of 2011, instead of 2013, when his presidential term ends.

"Opposition wants to take power using illegal means. You cannot compare Yemen to Egypt. Yemen had fair presidential elections and the people voted for person most fit to rule. I am Yemen's legal president," said Mr Saleh on Friday.

On March 18, the same day that Gen Mohsen joined the protesters, more than 500 ruling party officials also resigned, local media reported. At the time, many expressed the feeling that Mr Saleh's regime was soon to fall.

Mr Saleh, ever the survivor, reacted quickly by calling hundreds of his top aides and asking them personally to stand with him.

Over the last week, resignations from Mr Saleh's ruling party have come to a halt. This has given him time to regroup around his remaining allies and supporters.

Mahmood Junaid, a presidential aide of Mr Saleh, said: "Saleh has not only been able to stay in power, but he weakened the opposition and almost assured himself a chance to rule until the end of 2011.

"The past week has been a winning week for Saleh."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae