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April 7, 2011

Yemen: Deconstructing Saleh

Ali Abdullah Saleh is finished as Yemen's president.

Popular democratic protests that started on a small scale in mid-February outside Sanaa University have widened to encompass the whole country. The continuity and strength of the demonstrations clearly indicate that the regime’s days are numbered. Tribal leaders have joined the protesters. Even close allies who belong to Saleh’s own Hashid tribe, such as Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, have abandoned him. Now, even his long-term protector, the United States, seems to be abandoning him.

Saleh, who has been in power since 1978, knows that his time is up. “They are falling like leaves in autumn,” he recently said of the regime’s defectors. Resignations have increased: ambassadors, ministers, significant media figures, and army generals.

It is the last group that is decisive: when senior military and security personnel abandon an authoritarian regime in the face of popular pressure, its days are numbered. Yet Saleh retains the loyalty of the interior ministry, the Republican Guard, and part of the air force. Still, clashes between the army and the Republican Guard are further eroding the regime’s coherence.

Like other dictators in their political death throes — former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Col. Moammar Qaddafi, for example — Saleh has warned of the dangers the world would face if he is forced to depart: the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda attacks, Iranian regional hegemony, and the breakup of Yemen. Après moi le déluge seems to be the sole justification he can offer for his continued rule.

His desperation mounting, Saleh has ordered deadly attacks on protesters, evidently believing that his considerable skill at political manipulation would see him through. But, when he declared a state of emergency on March 23, the number of protesters in the streets doubled. Given his regime’s obvious lack of legitimacy, Saleh is playing a dangerous game; the sooner he leaves, the better for Yemen’s stability and security.

Indeed, all Yemenis — Houthis, Harak, and even Al-Hashids — appear united in their opposition to Saleh’s ailing regime and in their quest for civil and human rights. Members of hundreds of tribes have erected tents in “Change Square” in Sanaa. Perhaps more remarkably, in a country containing more than 12 million guns, the protesters have not fired a shot.

Then, on the eve of the Yemeni opposition’s planned “Friday of Departure” protests in late March, the United States resuscitated Saleh’s rule. Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared that, “the fall of Saleh would pose a real problem for US counterterrorism work.” Saleh, emboldened by Gates’ remarks, immediately appeared on television and ordered all opponents to leave Yemen, as if millions of Yemenis would simply desert the country, leaving him and his family to reside in peace.

Since 2009, the US has showered Saleh’s government with military aid. But the US knows that Al-Qaeda is an enemy of convenience for Saleh, and that the danger to the US from post-Saleh chaos in Yemen is exaggerated. Democracy does not coexist with Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, the rising threat of radicalization stems from delaying Saleh’s departure.

America’s credibility, already low in Yemen, has hit rock bottom; its leaders’ words are no longer taken at face value. The gap between US rhetoric and policies has widened. The Obama administration relied on the language of human rights in Libya, but it was content to ignore the democratic demands of millions of Yemenis.

The reality is that the US has known for weeks that it cannot save Saleh’s regime. Its concern for Saleh’s political survival is closely linked to its guardianship of the Saudi regime, which fears that ferment in Yemen could give Saudi Arabia’s own Shia, Zaidi, and Ismaili populations dangerous ideas about democratic reform, if not threaten the very existence of the Saudi state. After all, Saudi Arabia’s southern tribes and Yemen’s northern tribes are historically the same people, while the Shia in the Kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province are protesting in political harmony with the Shia of Bahrain.

Not surprisingly, Saleh tried to reach for the familiar Saudi lifeline, sending his foreign minister to Riyadh to plead for the sort of help the Saudi king provided to Bahrain. But the Saudis, having backed Saleh financially, and having sent troops to Yemen in 2009 to help him wage war against the Houthis, now consider him beyond saving. Instead, they are betting on potential new alliances within Yemen to deal with their unpredictable neighbor.

Finally, the US now appears to have concluded that Saleh’s regime cannot be revived. The most compassionate measure that the US, and Saudi Arabia, should take is a form of political euthanasia. A young Yemeni protester put this case succinctly: “America, stop administering life support to Saleh and deal with us directly. Yemen is the Yemeni people. We are Yemen. Saleh is only your crony.”

Mai Yamani's most recent book is Cradle of Islam.

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