Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Yemen: Palace Walk

Ahmed Eleiba recalls the details of a trip taken to Yemen that furnished insights still relevant on who is in control and how

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Palace Walk” is the English language title of a famous historical novel by Naguib Mahfouz. I have borrowed it as the title for my account of a trip to Yemen from December 2014 to January 2015. It was one of the longest trips I had undertaken as a journalist to cover conflict areas for Al-Ahram Weekly. But Yemen is worth the time and the events there are worth the attention. It is where a new front had opened up in the larger map of regional conflicts, a development marked by the “fall of Sanaa” on 25 September 2014, adding the Yemeni capital to the list of other Arab capitals that had felt the strong breezes of the Arab Spring only to find themselves engulfed in a tsunami.

My first order of business was to meet with the leaders of the political process who had arisen in the arenas of Yemen’s February 2011 Revolution and dominated the field until September 2014. It was a period of tumultuous events shaped by the clashes of political forces, alliances crumbling and others emerging and gaining strength, enemies mending fences and forging alliances, friends who arrived to the battlefield arm in arm only to leave it separately and bound for different yet unknown fates.

A single opening scene in Sanaa almost tells all. There in Sanaa Airport at dawn, one day a battle erupted between members of the army responsible for the security of the airport and members of a parallel army also responsible for guarding the airport. That “parallel” army was the Houthi army. The battle, I would later learn, was settled in accordance with tribal customs with “blood prices” for the victims exacted from both sides. That is Yemen in a nutshell. Ultimately, there is no leader to whom the two sides could turn and their numbers are approximately equal. Yet, oddly, there is a kind of ability to coexist, in spite of guardedness and the glint of suspicion that often threatens to sharpen to an intensity that could spark an outbreak of hostilities.

The customs official scrutinises passports and identity cards. Nevertheless, he must turn to another individual, much less imposing in appearance but with a much sterner expression. That other individual held the passport in a manner that made me strongly doubt his ability to read. After glancing at the picture, he passed it to another unofficial official in the security office who photocopied the document and helped dispelled the fear that had begun to well up inside me that we Egyptians, the Arabs closest to and most important to the Yemeni people, were perhaps no longer welcome there. The man reassured me that I had nothing to worry about. It was merely the difficult circumstances. These would pass soon. In the meantime, we Egyptians were always welcome, at any time and regardless of the circumstances.

I took up quarters at the Saba Hotel in Downtown Sanaa, in close proximity to many government institutions. That was my base from which I set out to explore the Yemen capital.

On the way in from the airport I saw the graffiti, “God is Great… Death to America… Death to Israel… Victory to Islam.” The very slogans chanted in the heart of Tehran in 1979. It was as though nothing had changed, as though someone was planning to produce the Iranian Basij here in Yemen. Slogans on the walls, in front of which were lined security forces. In name these belonged to the government, but in fact they belonged to their paymasters. No one here works for the state.

It is time to visit the Republican Palace, located on the street named after the famous Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The best-known street in the country, it leads from Freedom Square to the Republican Palace. The iconic Egyptian president has given his name to a number of buildings in Yemen. There is the Abdel-Nasser Secondary School from which Nasser, himself, stood and proclaimed to a huge throng, “Colonialism can not remain in a single part of the Arab nation because the Arab nation has awoken and because the Arab nation knows the road of its strength, and because the Arab nation knows the road of its revolution, and because the Arab nation knows the road of freedom… which is the road of construction and the road of raising living standards. May God grant you success, my brothers!”

The thrilling effect of Nasser’s impassioned speeches still can be felt in Yemen where they seem to have been passed on from generation to generation more than in Egypt. My friends in Yemen made me feel as though this feeling was as fresh as yesterday, rather than a memory of 24 April 1969. On the other hand, my friend Ali Al-Dabibi said: “Today, meanings have changed. Today, politics has changed. Today, people have changed. Today, life is not what life used to be.”

Suddenly I found myself in front of the Egyptian embassy. The venerable structure is another famous landmark. It is the first embassy to be established in Yemen after independence. The Republican Palace next door is where I would have my first meeting, with presidential advisor Fares Al-Saqaf.

I had brought with me my Yemeni friend Hossam Radman. We had made our way from the hotel to the Republican Palace on foot. No one paid us the slightest attention.

There are quite a few entranceways. We did the tour until we found the right one. It was manned by “parallel” forces, as was the case at the airport.

The palace’s outer walls present an imposing façade. But the building is unlike those elegant presidential palaces elsewhere in the Arab world. It has more in common with the fortress like edifices of the Mameluke era in Egypt, such as the walls of the Citadel in Egypt. Inside one finds a dim, gloomy air that breathed not the spirit of politics but rather the smell of smoke and the smell of battle.

My friend and I handed over our IDs at the outer gate. A Houthi presence prevailed this time. We were escorted by a Houthi soldier in a galabiya (full body robe) over which he wore an overcoat reminiscent of that worn by Egyptian policemen in the 1940s. He was sullen and silent. He held the gun and we, to him, were merely a duty to be performed and accounted for in a report he submitted to his commanding officer at the end of the day.

Al-Saqaf met us at the threshold of the palace doorway and led us to his office. The guard followed. There was no protocol or formalities upon entering his office. We sat, we talked and our conversation led us to the future that was the dream of a single man who was unable to touch that dream in reality. He was not speaking about Yemen. He seemed unaware that he was speaking about the programme of a government and a president that was not here in the Republican Palace but over there in a separate presidential residency. His last act in the Republican Palace was to sign the Peace and Partnership Agreement —“at gunpoint”, the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Qahtan would tell me when I met with him subsequently.

The agreement was a surrender to defeat, the defeat of all parties and leaders that took part in the all-inclusive joint dialogue, the defeat of the Gulf Initiative for the transition of power in Yemen. There was only one winner: the Houthis. The agreement put an end to the president’s presence in the palace. Henceforward, the partners who will run the country will operate out of their own residences and quarters. There is no need for a government palace, republican or otherwise. Yemen is fragmenting. Every group or tribe will rule from its preferred seat.

We took some photos in the Republican Palace as though to satisfy our host’s desire to make us feel that this was real, that his was an important position and that there was a state. Then we left and returned to the hotel where our friend Ali Hussein was waiting for us. I told him of our visit to the uninhabited palace, the president under virtual house arrest, the government in the maze of streets, the defence minister spoken of as the Yemeni Al-Sisi fighting on the fronts outside the capital in a seemingly endless war. Ali laughed but then turned serious. He pointed in a certain direction and said, “Over there. That’s where you’ll find Ali Abdullah Saleh. That’s where you’ll find the buzz of politics and governmental action. Try to meet the leader.”

Yasser Al-Awadi, the number two man in Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), is an in-law to a journalist friend of ours in Yemen. He invited us to his home and sent an armed escort of tribesmen to fetch us from the hotel in a convoy. I eventually became used to this practice whenever I had a meeting with a political figure.

Al-Awadi received us in the manner of senior politicians and he spoke at length. He took pride in showing us reports coming from GPC headquarters throughout the country. Many voiced recommendations: to reward such-and-such a person for having performed a certain action, to fire such-and-such for having done something bad. Other missives spoke in details of the conditions and circumstances of the people in their particular areas. They were probably very similar to the reports prepared by the president’s brother and his son who control the central security sector, or the reports of the aides to the president’s son, Ahmed, in the Republican Guard, of which there was no sign in the Republican Palace or in the vicinity of the new president of the republic, Field Marshal Abd Rabbo Hadi.

Later I would see pictures of Yasser Al-Awadi on Facebook showing him meeting with senior Baath officials and men close to President Al-Assad. However, he was unable to arrange a meeting for me with Saleh. Nor did it look like any of my other contacts in Yemen would help me on that score. Then the name of my Yemeni friend who lives in New York popped to mind. I had met Abdullah Al-Muradi before my trip to Yemen. He told me about his relations with the leader and the business he does for him. I called up Al-Muradi in New York. He answered with total confidence: “You’ll meet the leader tomorrow. Someone will call you and tell you when and where.” He added: “You can’t go to Sanaa and not meet the president.”

That was a Friday morning. The hoped for meeting with the leader would be the next day — Saturday. In the meantime, my friend, the excellent journalist Khaled Alyan, took me to Friday prayers at Al-Saleh Mosque. The mosque, located near Ali Saleh’s residence, is where the assassination attempt against him took place. It is an extraordinarily sumptuous mosque. Khaled told me that Saleh had sent delegations of architects and artists to all parts of the Arab world, and eventually he agreed on this splendid architectural style. More important to me was that this was the first time I had ever seen such a presence of military jeeps and army contingents in uniform, wearing name badges and displaying the emblems of their various ranks. It was as though to say, there is a president performing his prayers in this mosque and this is the force that protects him. Khaled explained that the mosque was protected by Saleh’s forces. According to a security protocol in an appendix of the Gulf Initative, he has a force of 30,000 troops and officers at his command. At that moment I knew that I would be going to the palace.

And so I did. My friend Al-Muradi was as good as his word. The president’s secretary Mohamed Al-Faqih phoned me to inform me that the appointment was at 1:00pm. I set off with my equipment — camera plus mobile to record the interview. The reinforced cement security barricades began kilometres from the Saleh presidential palace on Street 60. Security teams patrolled, inspection teams searched, soldiers and civilians moved here and there. There was non-stop activity as though this was the Republican Palace.

I passed through the security gates. My ID and mobile were scrutinised even though Al-Faqih was there to receive me. Moreover, to my dismay, I was told I would not be able to bring in my mobile or camera.

“How am I going to record the interview?” I asked.

“Don’t worry. We’ll record it for you,” Faqih answered.

When I objected, he said, “Then you’ll have to buy a new recorder and a new SIM card and we’ll arrange the interview tomorrow. Today, you’ll only be able to see the president to prepare for the meeting tomorrow.”

We made our way through another security room, then through the secretariat room, the special guards chamber and then into the palace courtyard. The tour seemed intended for display, as though to say this is where the president is, this is where the leader is.

Suddenly, I saw Saleh himself coming in my direction in the company of a number of aides. He had come out to receive me. We sat in one of the adjacent seating areas for five minutes. He summed up the current situation in Egypt as better than under Muslim Brotherhood rule but not better than in the Mubarak era. “The Muslim Brothers should be sentenced to death,” he said. “There are media in Egypt that are still loyal to them. They have sleeping cells that should be uprooted. Without them, the country will recover from [what I call] the Arab Hell, not the Arab Spring.”

I settled into my role as listener. He did not want an interview with a journalist. He wanted a journalist to tell the media in his country about Yemen’s leader and to convey the leader’s messages here and there.

I did not warm to the man. He was a superb actor and behind the façade was the cunning politician who knows how to play politics and manipulate politicians, and how to deal with the tribes and their chiefs, and who to court and who to exclude. He had the media under his thumb more than others. The directors of Yemeni news agencies, state television and private stations orbited around him, as did politicians from the governorates and provincial capitals within the framework of the GPC. He wanted to be seen as the leader, not the president. As he saw it, the president comes to power and will lose it one day. The leader is a title that he will take to the grave.

I returned the following day and went through the same security procedures. This time I was taken to Saleh’s office, a fully equipped presidential suite. He assumed his customary position and spoke as he had the previous day. He knows the political language of the tribes, who to approach and who to avoid, who to reward and who to punish, who can be won over with money and who can be won over with diplomacy. He knows whom he can use to change the rules of the game, and whom he can turn from enemy to ally. That is what politics is about in Yemen regardless of whether or not it is taking place under the dome of parliament, under the vaulted ceilings of the presidential palace, or in any government building. Anyone who fails to grab this will not be able to make allies or will forge alliances against the rules of the political game.

Before leaving Yemen, I met with some Houthis in Al-Jaraf province. There one finds another flag. It bears the slogan, “O ye who believe, be the champions of God,” echoing the Hizbullah slogan which is also taken from the Quran. There was no sign of the Yemeni national flag. Nor was there a semblance of a presidential or republican palace. But Al-Jaraf, itself, seemed to serve as the seat from which they could rule Yemen in the field, leaving politics to their ally in that palace on Street 60.

Friends from Yemen have told me recently that the Republican Palace has been closed and will remain so until further notice. As for Saleh’s presidential residence in the alternative palace, it was destroyed in one of the aerial bombardments being carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. Its residents — Saleh and his court — now move between the Nahdayn and Naqm mountains. As for Hadi, the man who has his sights set on returning to the Republican Palace, his headquarters remains in Riyadh and Jeddah, with occasional trips to Aden and none yet to Sanaa.

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