Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Ali Abdullah Saleh - Thinking of a comeback

After a long and not always glorious career, the 72-year-old former Yemeni president may be planning a political comeback, writes Medhat Al-Zahed

 Ali Abdullah Saleh
Ali Abdullah Saleh
Al-Ahram Weekly

It may be unfair to blame former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh for all the troubles facing his country today. It is after all true that his opponents, including members of the Saudi court, offered him every possible help to rule Yemen for 30 years running, making him one of the Arab world’s longest-serving dictators.

But the man’s profile fits the charges rather neatly – a man rising from poverty to riches, conspiring against enemies, getting rid of friends, and finally trying to keep power in his bloodline in a practice that has, in Yemen as well as elsewhere, unleashed the turbulent months of the Arab Spring and the prolonged instability that has followed.

During his time in office, Saleh amassed legendary wealth and power. At one point, he turned his back on his cousin Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar and started grooming his son, Ahmed Ali, for power. Ahmed became head of the Republican Guard and Saleh left no one in doubt about his future intentions.

Saleh’s road to power was also a particularly bloody one. Starting his career as a corporal in the armed forces, his single-mindedness was clear from the start, along with a trademark ruthlessness that hasn’t left him to this day.

 Saleh is suspected of killing former presidents Al-Hamdi in 1977 and Al-Ghashmi in 1978 with the help of tribal leaders and Saudi intelligence agents.

Starting out as an ally of sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmar, chief of the major Sunni tribe of Hashed in Yemen, Saleh later teamed up with Abdel-Malik Al-Houthi, a Shiite tribal chief running a powerful militia called Ansar Allah.

People who know him say Saleh’s one lasting loyalty is to himself, however. Drunk on power, Saleh did not see the rebellion that ousted him three years ago coming. His reaction was one of denial, then acceptance, then the behind-the-scenes scheming that brought civil war to the country.

He was born on 21 March, 1942, in Sanhan, a village near Sanaa. His parents divorced, and Saleh grew up poor, having to take odd jobs to support himself. He tended sheep, was a lackey for a local sheikh for a while, and then with little more than primary schooling to show for himself he joined the army at the age of 16.

The army was Saleh’s ticket out of misery. He joined the Army College in 1960, earning a corporal’s rank upon graduation. He took part in the revolution of 26 September 1963 in Yemen and was rewarded with a second lieutenant’s position.

By 1975, he had been made military chief of the Taiz Brigade and commander of the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Camp. From then on, there was no looking back.

THE ROAD TO THE PRESIDENCY: As security chief of Taiz, Saleh became one of the most influential men in North Yemen, forging close ties with influential sheikhs such as Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar, speaker of the Yemeni parliament. He also had strong ties with the Saudi regime.

In 1974, Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, the new president of North Yemen, proposed reconciliation with the ruling regime in South Yemen, adopted a socialist approach to development, and pushed for Yemen’s unity. This made him a popular figure, basking in the admiration of supporters who wanted to see real change in the country.

Al-Hamdi clashed, however, with tribal leaders, and he was perceived as a threat to Saudi Arabia, which had grown accustomed to North Yemen orbiting in its sphere. The independent-minded Al-Hamdi then started calling for the return of Yemeni land that had been seized by Saudi Arabia.

On 11 October, 1979, Ibrahim Al-Hamdi and his brother were killed in mysterious circumstances just before a planned trip to South Yemen to sign a unity agreement. The perpetrators were never identified, but the Thawri newspaper affiliated with the Yemeni Socialist Party claimed that Ali Abdullah Saleh had shot Al-Hamdi dead in the presence of Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar and in collusion with Ahmed Al-Ghashmi and Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed Al-Ghashmi, who succeeded Al-Hamdi as president, lasted in power for just under a year before he too was killed in mysterious circumstances.

Less than a month after Al-Ghashmi’s death, Saleh was made president and army chief.

In October 1979, a group of Al-Hamdi supporters staged a coup to “correct” the path of the revolution. The coup, led by Eissa Mohamed Saif and Mohamed Fallah, failed.

In the clampdown that followed, Saleh persecuted Yemen’s intellectuals, especially the Nasserists. Anyone thought to have connections with the coup leader was arrested, and many were tortured in prison.

RELATIONS WITH THE HOUTHIS: The relations between Saleh and the Houthis is extraordinary in its ups and downs. At the beginning of the Houthi rebellion in 2004, Saleh sent his troops against the Shiite militia in what became known as the First War in 2004.

He had every intention of crushing the rebels, but then something else came to his mind: he would use the rebels to get rid of his main rival for power, so as to pave the way for his son’s elevation to prominence.

After battles that were fiercer than expected, Saleh managed to kill Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, founder and leader of Ansar Allah. Government forces seized control over all the areas Al-Houthi had grabbed. But in the five subsequent wars that followed, the battles were less decisive, mainly because of the political games being played out back in Sanaa.

Saleh used the war with the Houthis to weaken Ali Mohsen, his right-hand man. Mohsen sensed that Saleh was trying to edge him out of power, and the power struggle between the two is what gave the Houthis their chance to turn from a ragtag army of rebels to a well-disciplined fighting force.

The war with the Houthis was joined in areas under Mohsen’s direct control. When Saleh tried to use the war as an excuse to get the bulk of Mohsen’s troops from Sanaa and replace them with the Republican Guard led by his own son, things got tricky.

Mohsen, aware of Saleh’s intentions, sent only a small force against the Houthis, leaving most of his troops in place in Sanaa, thus foiling Saleh’s plan. Meanwhile, as the Houthis skirmished repeatedly with government troops they acquired combat skills and a keener taste for power.

The Houthi rebellion played into Saleh’s hands in another way. Challenged by a Shiite group believed to be allied with Iran, the Yemeni leader made common cause with Gulf nations wary of Tehran’s expansionist policies.

The Houthi occupation of the Al-Dokhan Mountain in southern Saudi Arabia gave Saleh the evidence he needed to pose as a defender of the Gulf region against Iranian penetration. His role as a bulwark against communists fading, Saleh made a comeback as an anti-Iranian figure.

It was a lucrative role, and Saleh wanted to drag it out for what it was worth. As he took partial measures to keep the Houthis at bay, the latter got more powerful. Then something happened out of the blue, throwing this whole lucrative game to the wind. The nation rose up on 17 February 2011, demanding an end to Saleh’s long, corrupt and inept rule.

Not long after the revolution started, Saleh was injured in the bombing of a mosque in the presidential palace and had to receive medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. That was followed by protracted negotiations mediated at times by the Gulf Cooperation Council, leading to Saleh’s abdication, on promise of legal immunity, in early 2012. Saleh’s son, Ahmed, was appointed ambassador to the UAE.

Meanwhile, the Houthis were playing their own power game. First they joined the rebellion against Saleh, but as soon as the opportunity presented itself they took control of the capital Sanaa and started the power grab that has now made them the target of an aerial campaign by a ten-nation Arab coalition.

Even then, Saleh remained defiant. Seeking to reinvent himself as a national figure, he made a speech to the Yemeni people.

“O masses of our great Yemeni people,” he began. “You are no doubt aware of the sacrifices made by the General National Congress and its leaders and allies to stem the bloodshed and keep Yemen from falling into chaos and civil war.”

He went on to promise “a civil and democratic modern state based on the principles of freedom, social justice and good governance.”

President of North Yemen for 12 years, and leader of a unified Yemen for 22, ousted in a popular rebellion only three years back, it seems the 72-year-old former president is still dreaming of a comeback.

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