Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Yemen’s uncertain future

The assassination of Ali Abdullah Saleh marks the end of an era in Yemen, and complicates whatever happens next, writes Hossam Radman

A Huthi fighter is seen outside of the residence of Yemen
A Huthi fighter is seen outside of the residence of Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa. (photo:AFP)

Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh had just been hailed in the Arab press as the leader of the uprising in Sanaa. Three days later he was being mourned as a “martyr” of the Yemeni Republic, killed by allies of Tehran.

During the brief interval between hailing and mourning Saleh analysts scrambled to determine possible scenarios and unravel the political alignments in which he would play a central role. Not even the most pessimistic prognosis anticipated such a quick and gruesome end.

News of Saleh’s death shocked the majority of Yemenis. He had been a fixture of the political scene for as long as many could remember. Now people are gripped by conflicting feelings as they look back on an era marked by corruption and authoritarianism but which had brought a degree of stability.

In 2012, after Saleh was nearly killed by his adversaries, he stepped down from office but at the same time secured continuing influence for his political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), in a deal that guaranteed it half the seats in government.

Addressing all the factions that had signed the Gulf Initiative he said: “It is not the agreement that counts. Good intentions are what matters.”

Though few trusted Saleh’s intentions, as head of the largest political party he remained a powerful figure, adroit at manipulating the Yemeni scene in a manner that mired his adversaries in confrontations they could never hope to win. Thus did he exact revenge on those who had conspired to kill him — the Congregation of Reform Party, the Al-Ahmar family and Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar — and succeed in handing over control of the capital to the Houthis, who last week succeeded where earlier adversaries had failed.

When the Houthis forced Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s successor as president, to resign, placing him under effective house arrest and announcing their revolutionary constitutional declaration, Saleh received instructions from Riyadh to ally with his old adversary the Congregation of Reform (Islah) Party, the political face of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, against the Houthis. He refused, preferring to avoid an open clash and to continue manipulating the political chessboard in his customary way. After the Saudis launched Operation Storm of Resolve, with the purported aim of reinstating Hadi, Saleh found himself forced to ally with the Houthis in the face of what they described as foreign aggression. The two sides attempted to develop their uneasy alliance of necessity into something more solid by creating a Supreme Political Council. But mutual mistrust continued to seethe beneath the surface. It spilled over into the streets in August. By the end of November the gun prevailed.

What led a man whose political savvy was legendary make the kind of catastrophic miscalculations that ended in his own death?

According to information leaked to Al-Ahram Weekly an intensive series of meetings had been conducted on 29 November between the Houthis and Saudi officials during which Houthi Spokesman Mohamed Abdel-Salam offered Riyadh genuine reassurances regarding their relationship with Iran. The meetings heralded the resumption of secret Saudi-Houthi talks in Dhahran which had been suspended with the rise of Saudi’s new crown prince who was inclined to favour Saleh.

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the Houthis’ moves against the homes of GPC officials coincided with statements by Adel Al-Jubeir to the effect the Houthis had a right to participate in the political process in Yemen. Saleh’s decision to escalate the situation — which resulted in his assassination, could thus be seen as a last minute political U-turn to give him some tactical superiority. It was a turnaround that left his back exposed, destroying his credibility as a partner in the alliance “against the aggression”.

Houthi operations targeting Saleh’s areas of influence began on 30 November. The rebels’ escalation ignited a fuse that would explode on 1 December. Rather than absorb the shocks created by the skirmishing, as he had done in the past, Saleh allowed them to escalate into extensive clashes. His party issued a statement instructing its military and security leaders to refuse to obey Houthi orders. As the battles continued, forces loyal to Saleh regained vital military facilities south of the capital including Al-Sawad Camp, Camp 48, the National Security Building and the Republican Guards base.

Saleh was able to redraw the military geography of the capital, with his forces stationed in the south and the Houthis in the north. He could have exploited this military success by imposing new rules on the Houthis for their partnership. Instead, he chose to go much further.

Saleh probably calculated that though it was now impossible to talk with the Houthis he was not militarily strong enough to declare a coup against the Houthi coup-makers. He must also have been aware that the military balance as it stood on the night of 1 December was not sustainable.

On 2 December Saleh appeared on television and called for a popular uprising against the Houthis. More importantly, he hinted he was ready to talk to Riyadh and open a new page in their relationship. He wanted the Arab Coalition onside in his conflict with the Houthis, and to use popular and tribal anger against the Houthis to support his forces.

The Gulf media changed its tune towards Saleh overnight. He was elevated from “ousted” to “former” president. The Saudi-led coalition gave its blessing to the Sanaa intifada and the Hadi government indicated it was willing to let bygones be bygones. Coalition aircraft began bombarding Houthi positions. On the ground tribal forces did not march on the capital but they intercepted and delayed Houthi reinforcements.

The following day, however, Saleh’s forces began to lose ground in the streets. They struggled to maintain their hold on security installations in Al-Jazair Street and in the diplomatic quarter and then lost it after Houthi reinforcements arrived and began a tank bombardment.

Sunday, 3 December, was catastrophic for the GPC. The party was deeply divided. On one side were those angry with what they regarded as Saleh’s impulsiveness. They urged him to back down and respond to Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi’s invitation to talk. On the other side were loyalists who felt the time had come to switch sides and join the Arab Coalition since this would shift the balance of forces in favour of Saleh.

As evening came the GPC issued a statement calling for dialogue. It said Saleh’s words had been misunderstood. The situation became more confused when a GPC official said that the party’s website had been hacked and the statement was not genuine. Informed sources told the Weekly doves in the party had posted the statement and that hawks subsequently denied it.

At midnight Saleh released a terse statement on his Facebook page reaffirming his decision to escalate the confrontation. He justified his decision by citing changes in the region and unacceptable Houthi subordination to Iran.

Saleh had completed his U-turn, positioning himself as an absolute enemy of the Houthis and a leader on the way to a rapprochement with Riyadh.

In practical terms, Saleh had only begun to prepare for Plan B. He desperately needed to reposition himself politically and militarily which meant leaving the capital. Houthi sniper fire at the outskirts of Sanaa put a halt to his bid to escape and brought an end to a political career filled with contradictions and unlikely transformations.

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